Since his days as the defensive coordinator with the Baltimore Ravens, Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis has always had a crush on linebackers. He loves the "'tweener" types that can defend the run and put their hands in the dirt to rush the passer, a la Peter Boulware or Dontay Moch. Lewis also loves the fiery middle linebackers who he can trust to line up the rest of the defense and be a leader. After all, Lewis drafted and groomed the league's preeminent player at the position in Ray Lewis.
The last two Bengals linebackers to don the number "55" came to the club in starkly different paths. Keith Rivers, a former USC Trojan, came to the club via the No.9 overall pick in the 2008 draft. He stayed with the club until this offseason, when he was shipped to the Giants in a trade that yielded a 2012 fifth-round pick. Rivers' stay in Cincinnati could be best described as injury-plagued and disappointing.
The Bengals' current backup middle linebacker, Vontaze Burfict, rode a roller coaster this offseason where he was initially touted as a first or second round pick, but tumbled out of the seven rounds and was an undrafted free agent. It was a low-risk move for the club and he was a longshot to make the team. Burfict made a lot of plays this preseason and cemented himself as a player on the final 53-man roster. After getting a chance with the club, Burfict is making it known who his role model is and where he's setting his standards.
"He (Lewis) wants the best out of me and that's what I need at this level," Burfict says. "He's the father, I'm the son. He sees the potential I have. He's not setting any limits. Sometimes it gets under my skin, but that's what I need in order to be better than Ray Lewis, or up to his level. I just need to be pushed."
What we didn't know or hear much about was how the relationship between Burfict and Lewis began. As Geoff Hobson of Bengals.com chronicles, it was Burfict who personally reached out to Lewis after his struggles at his Pro Day. It was around this time that things began to unravel for Burfict, in terms of his draft stock. A player once pegged to go to the Ravens in early mock drafts as early as the end of the first round, was starting to hear murmurs that he wouldn't get drafted at all. In a gesture that likely gave himself the opportunity to land with the Bengals, even by going undrafted. He personally phoned Lewis to apologize for his actions.
"Ever since then we've seen eye-to-eye and communicated," Burfict says. "He's the only guy that gave me a shot. I respect him for that. We exchanged numbers and I gave him a call and we just talked about football, our scheme at Arizona State. I don't know why, but something in my head told him to call him. Maybe it was the Lord or something. He wants what's best for me, to be the best I can be. He's like my father."
The Burfict acquisition may not pay immediate dividends, as he's backing up Rey Maualuga and has been designated for special teams duty. But, what it does show is some foresight on the Bengals' part. Maualuga has had a couple of injuries in his four-year career (he's currently coming off of a knee sprain), and he's in the last year of his rookie contract. While Maualuga has big potential, he hasn't realized it because of the injuries and inconsistencies on and off of the football field. So, Burfict's steps towards potentially becoming the next Ray Lewis may come sooner than we initially expected.