CINCINNATI, OH - MAY 12: Vontaze Burfict #55 of the Cincinnati Bengals listens with other linebackers during a rookie minicamp at Paul Brown Stadium on May 12, 2012 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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What a week. First, we learned that former Bengals and Patriots wide receiver, Chad Ochocinco, is jobless and speculation is whirling around where he'll land next. Then, on Friday, we learned that longtime Bengals offensive guard and consummate NFL pro, Bobbie Williams, will be playing for the hated Baltimore Ravens. This was a surprising move, as we didn't really know how Williams' rehabilitation was going, other than he was recently doing some things with the Bengals earlier in the week. Williams isn't the first veteran lineman to leave the Bengals for the Ravens either, as Willie Anderson did the same thing in 2008 after surprisingly being cast off from the club.
With Williams' departure, many Bengals fans are displeased that the team didn't make a more concerted effort to sign him and thought that he'd be a good insurance policy for the team--especially in the leadership department. But, how valuable would he really have been for the team in 2012?
Think about it: the club brought in two guards this offeason, one in free agency and one via draft. Both Travelle Wharton and Kevin Zeitler are projected to jump in the starting lineup and vastly improve both the passing and running game this year. Wharton has actually had a career that resembles Williams', as he is known as a solid and dependable player and his former team (the Carolina Panthers) was sad to see him go. The coaching staff was very high on Zeitler, as he was the first guard that the team had ever taken in the first round. Beyond that, the coaching staff had him rated equal to David DeCastro.
In the 2011 draft, the team also invested a fourth round pick in Clint Boling, who ended up starting in a pinch for the Bengals. He played well at times, but also struggled at others and was ultimately pulled out of the lineup. Still, the club has high hopes for him and he should be the heir apparent to the left guard spot. The team is also very high on 2010 draftee, Otis Hudson. The coaching staff loves the versatility that these two players bring and they provide decent depth behind Wharton and Zeitler.
One could argue that both of the new starters at guard are a bit of an unknown at this point. While Zeitler looks the part and Wharton has a solid track record, nobody really knows what we're getting yet. With Williams, on the other hand, we knew exactly what was coming--strong in the running game, a decent pass protector and a team leader. He was a mainstay on this line since 2004 and the line won't look the same without him.
But, think objectively here. The Bengals run offense hasn't been the same since 2009 when Cedric Benson and a solid defense carried the team to the playoffs. The 2010 season was a disaster and the offensive line never looked right as Benson struggled to be the same back that he was just a year before and Carson Palmer was almost always under pressure. In 2011, things improved in pass protection, but that was more of a testament to Andy Dalton's mobility than quality pass protection. Let's also not forget that the Bengals barely had Williams last season because of a four-game suspension and a subsequent season-ending injury. Simply put, he wasn't a factor last season.
Beyond that, Williams play in 2010 slipped. If you remember, he was suspect to a number of false start and holding penalties that ended up being drive-killers. Most fans (myself included) gave him a pass because the entire team played horribly that year, but if you turned on the tape, you'd see what I mean. Williams' last quality season as a starter was in 2009. Lastly, though we don't know this for sure, offensive coordinator Jay Gruden may just want something different out of the position than what WIlliams could provide to the West Coast Offense.
While we all admired Bobbie and his years of service here, it was time for the team to move on. They have three young guards that they like and need to develop--bringing Williams back would force them to get rid of those players. The team also wasn't sure how ready he was to suit up and play, so they moved forward without him. Williams was a great guy and a good player--he's replaceable and we need to move on from him like the team did.
Earlier this week, I was asked by a number of our commenters about my thoughts on rookie linebacker Vontaze Burfict and his development. We have been chronicling him a bit here at Cincy Jungle over the past few weeks' practices and by all accounts, he's saying and doing all of the right things. He's not only doing community work in CIncinnati, but he's keeping his mouth shut and working hard. What's more, he's looking good at practice doing it.
He's also decided to shadow Rey Maualuga and soak up what he knows about being an NFL linebacker like a sponge. Some cynics could ask whether or not it's a good thing that Burfict is choosing to do this, but seeing as how it's pushing Maualuga to look better in practice, I'm going to say that I approve of it. It now seems as if Burfict is making a strong put to make the final roster and he's no longer a long shot for that to occur. It appears that Burfict has re-committed himself to football after his fall from grace in the draft.
Still, I have lingering worries about him. Though the team invested very little in him and he's a low-risk/high reward prospect, there's still some potential for backlash here. Burfict could be the model citizen for a year or two in Cincinnati, proving himself worthy of a key role on the team's defense. We've seen many NFL players with troubled pasts get on the right path, only to fall off again once more responsibility and/or money is given to them.
Given the region that I live in, I'm privileged to watch a lot of Pac-12 football. I saw a couple of games that Burfict played in at Arizona State and I obviously was impressed with his ability. In ASU's biggest game of 2011 against USC, Burfict shined (as did Brock Osweiler). He was flying around the field and made a number of plays. He also made a couple of bonehead plays which cost his team a lot of yards in penalties, which evoked a "what are you doing?" type of response.
It's no secret that Marvin Lewis has always been trying to find certain pieces that will recapture what he had on the Ravens defense in the early 2000s. Lewis has been searching for his next Peter Boulware and Ray Lewis, but unfortunately for Lewis and the Bengals, it hasn't happened. Burfict has the tenacity and linebacker skills that many believe could translate well into the NFL. It's those bonehead plays that make it hard to trust him in the future.
So for now, I'm practicing cautious optimism with him. Any positive contributions he can give the club will definitely be welcomed, as not much is generally expected from an undrafted free agent. But, the Bengals had better be very sure that Burfict has changed his stripes before they hand him the keys to any major role on this team.