In my years of watching both college and professional football, as well as covering the Bengals at Cincy Jungle for a few years now, I don't know that I've seen a player have the draft experience that Vontaze Burfict had last year. As a sophomore at Arizona State University, Burfict was a force. He terrorized a then-dominant USC team and flew all around the field--sometimes to the detriment of the Sun Devils, as Burfict racked up quite a few after-the-whistle penalties.
Though his tackle total tapered off as a senior, he had five sacks in his final year, as well as an interception. Early in the draft process, many viewed Burfict as a late first to a second round selection. After all, Burfict was one of the better players in the Pac-10/12.
Then things got weird. The rumor mill started to spin with allegations that he wasn't the most coachable player and wasn't a stellar teammate. Not exactly the type of reputation you want to build after being known to make dumb penalties on the field as well. He had poor workouts in front of NFL personnel and most reported that he looked out of shape and apathetic to the biggest job interview of his life. NFL Network draft guru Mike Mayock went on to say call Burfict "undraftable" and thought his game tape was terrible.
But, through it all, Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis loved something about the kid. He knew he could play linebacker at the NFL level, if he was coached up and pushed the right way. The respect was mutual, as Burfict called Lewis after his Pro Day to talk football. Still, even though Lewis liked him, he and the rest of the Bengals braintrust weren't willing to sacrifice a draft pick on him. Burfict landed with the Bengals as an undrafted free agent.
Though he faced a steep climb to make the roster, Burfict impressed early on and was a special teams mainstay. He continued to impress through the preseason games as a backup and it became clear that he would hang on to the roster. An unfortunate, season-ending injury to outside linebacker Thomas Howard after only two games forced Burfict into the starting lineup at a position that wasn't his natural one.
WHY HE RANKED HERE:
Burfict led the Bengals in total tackles with 127, had a sack and two fumble recoveries. All of that and he still participated on special teams. Though most fans want to see Burfict slide to the middle to relieve Rey Maualuga of his duties, Burfict will start on the outside once again in 2013. It's quite possible that the Bengals will be boasting three of the hardest hitting linebackers in the league with Burfict, James Harrison and Maualuga (when he isn't missing tackles). The future looks bright with Burfict and the Bengals.
WHY HE SHOULDN'T BE RANKED HERE:
We have to look at the one-year wonder argument again here with Burfict. It's hard to explain putting a guy with only one year of experience just outside of the top-five on this list, even if it was a good way to start his career. We should proceed with cautious optimism with Burfict, as he does have that past reputation of work ethic issues and the like. Now that he has had some praise heaped on him, will he take a step back in 2013, or will he continue to take Mike Zimmer's and Lewis' coaching? We'll see.
As I stated earlier, the future looks bright for Burfict, if he doesn't get out of shape or stray from the watchful eye of his coaches. We don't see him moving to the middle this year, unless Maualuga goes down with an injury and/or is ineffective. We hope and expect that Burfict will replicate his rookie performance and continue to wow us with the many tackles he makes by leaving his feet and leaping towards his target.