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After rough first two years, former second-round pick blossoms as linebacker
Linebacker Kevin Minter (left) shakes hands with defensive end Calais Campbell after the Cardinals beat the 49ers last weekend.

Kevin Minter had the thought, and for a while, it was inescapable.

Circumstances in his first two seasons did not help the linebacker’s quest to play. The Cardinals signed Karlos Dansby in 2013, a couple of weeks after he was drafted, and then signed Larry Foote in 2014. He tore his pectoral muscle late in the 2014 preseason as well, which left him banged up all season.

But Minter also was unsure of how quickly he was learning the playbook, unable to fully get to that point where, as the football cliché goes, he was able to play without thinking. So he wondered.

“I’m like, ‘Did they waste a second-round pick on me?’ ” Minter said. “All that stuff comes into your head.”

The answer, three games into his third season, is no.

Minter got healthy. He went maniacal into improving eating habits and his body, shaving more than 10 pounds from his frame. The playbook clicked in his head. He’s playing almost every down, a role that coach Bruce Arians was saying as recently as early training camp he would not have. If this is the Minter the Cardinals are going to have, it’s a second-round pick well spent.

“I was taught that your third year in the league, you tell the league what you are,” said Foote, now Minter’s inside linebackers coach. “He’s answering that call. Hey, he hasn’t been thrown out there. He played, what, 30 percent of the snaps last year? You couldn’t judge him. His opportunity came and he’s seizing it so far.”

Minter is the Cards’ second-leading tackler with 21 total stops, behind safety-but-a-lot-of-linebacker Deone Bucannon. Minter also has a team-best six tackles for loss, including the stop of 49ers running back Carlos Hyde Sunday for a safety.

“I don’t mind if you don’t believe I can do it, because I know I can,” Minter said. “I’m pretty good, I feel like -- not to be cocky.”

Minter chuckled as he said it, showing a quiet confidence that was lacking previous. The arrivals of Dansby and then Foote derailed some of his progress – “When you have a championship-caliber team, you’re going to err on the side of the vets,” Foote said – and so too did the injury. Minter acknowledged it took until midseason last year before he was confident enough to attempt a pushup.

But Minter also can’t say that, had his injury not occurred, he would have been ready to take such a step forward last season. As much as he learned from Dansby as a rookie, Minter said he learned much more from Foote, and he wasn’t quite ready in 2014.

“I think you should give a person two or three years before you make a strong judgement on him,” defensive end Calais Campbell said. “Once you play smart and know what you are doing, that’s when you get your potential. I think Kevin is playing smart, it allows him to play fast, and he’s playing as well as anybody.”

His improved weight – Minter said he’s playing around 235 pounds – helps him in coverage, a big deal considering the Cardinals weren’t going to use him outside the base defense. Now they are. And Minter is calling the defenses like Foote did before him.

Minter isn’t wondering anymore if the Cardinals should’ve spent that second-round pick, although he isn’t proclaiming himself a finished product either.

“There is still a lot of room to improve, and I’m not just saying that because it’s the cliché,” Minter said, noting missed tackles that should be cleaned up through game experience.

Foote sees one other spot he’d like to see Minter improve, which is his big-play celebration. Minter’s mentor was looking for more after Minter made the tackle for the safety.

“When I got my safety, a personal foul unsportsmanlike conduct came right behind that,” Foote said, recalling a long-ago play. “So I’m working on him being more exuberant.”

Foote smiled.

“Naw, he’s playing well,” Foote added. “He wasn’t a bad player last year, he was just stuck behind an old guy who could line people up and could run the defense. Now it’s his turn.”