Vontaze Burfict was one of the biggest question marks in the 2012 NFL Draft. The former Arizona State linebacker was a first-round talent, but a poor showing at the combine, what was perceived as a bad attitude and other off-field struggles surprisingly caused him to go undrafted.
There were three teams that gave Burfict a look as an undrafted free agent and he decided to accept the Bengals' offer of a league-minimum salary and a $1,000 signing bonus. That was almost a year ago. In less than a year, Burfict started the majority of the team's games at WILL and led the team in tackles with 174 tackles, according to the team's official site.
According to FOX Sports' Alex Marvez, part of what helped Burfict make his decision on signing with the Bengals was Marvin Lewis and linebacker coach Paul Guenther, who both talked with Burfict numerous times and took him under their wings.
"I communicated to them what my journey had been like," Burfict said. "They all related to that and understood some things just didn't go my way. They took me under their wings and coach Guenther spent extra time with me watching film to let me understand the whole defense before the other rookies understood it."
According to Marves, Burfict liked the idea of playing for the coach who was Ray Lewis' first defensive coordinator. Even though he was disappointed in the fact that he wasn't drafted, especially since many believed he was going to be selected in the first round, he is happy how things worked out and he is thankful for the chance the Bengals took on him.
"All I needed was a chance," Burfict told FOXSports.com in a Tuesday telephone interview. "I never want to second-guess myself. I always have to think positive.
"Every practice I try to simulate as a game. I go in there and do my job. Everything went smoothly."
The NFL's stats, have Burfict in fourth place in tackles among all rookies in 2012 behind Luke Kuechly, Bobby Wagner and Lavonte David. It was the first year of what has the potential to be a very promising career. He was the team's best run defending linebacker as well as the team's best coverage linebacker, according to Pro Football Focus and became a major piece of the team's front seven, which was among the best in the league in 2012.
Burfict knows his 2012 season was successful, and he's proud, but he know he's not done improving yet and he still has a lot to work on.
"I'm proud but never satisfied," said Burfict, 22. "I'm looking to improve the things I didn't do good last year. I was pretty good at run-stopping. This year, I'll be good in coverage and do a better job rotating my hips and pretty much be a better football player overall.
"Last year I'm happy about, but nobody remembers last year. I'm focused on this year now."
Burfict's on-field success and his story has made him a fan favorite in Cincinnati in just one season. That one season, in which he started at the bottom and climbed his way to the top, also made him a little wiser. As the NFL draft is just a day away, Burfict's advise to the incoming rookies is to do all the small things right.
"It doesn't matter if you're the first pick, the last pick or undrafted," Burfict said. "You're still a rookie at the end of the day. You're still able to go in with your chin up ready to go if your number is called. Just do all the little things right and you'll be alright."