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Expectations for Vontaze Burfict in the 2015 Season

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After losing their leading tackler during the season last year, what do the Bengals expect from Vontaze Burfict's 2015 return? Can the team afford to have their star defender miss time?

Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

The biggest question mark for the Bengals’ defense as we head into training camp will be the health and status of Vontaze Burfict. After leading the team in tackles in 2012 and 2013, Burfict was lost in 2014 to a knee injury, after missing multiple games and parts of games due to concussion and neck issues. Burfict underwent microfracture surgery in late January; the procedure involves drilling tiny fractures in bone to develop new cartilage.

Based on the invasiveness of this type of procedure, the recovery time is long and often unknown. Players are evaluated by how their body reacts to the changes and rehab schedules are hard to deliver. Dr. Neal ElAttrache, who performed the procedure and spoke with NFL.com's Ian Rapoport in late January, believes Burfict should be able to return to his old form and be healthy by training camp.

"I don't see any reason, if this thing heals like we want and we think it will, why he won't be back like he was," said Dr. Neal ElAttrache, a member of the Kerlan-Jobe Orthopedic Clinic Board of Directors, over the phone. "Microfracture has a bad connotation, but there are plenty of guys who have come back and been able to play like before. But it's not really news when it works out."

Obviously this is the best option for the team and one we are keeping our collective fingers crossed for. Still, don’t count on it.

Health Expectations

There are two camps on what to expect from Burfict as far as timing of getting him back on the field. Some believe he will be ready for training camp and will be back to his old self by the time the season starts. Others believe there is a good chance Burfict will begin the season on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list and that if he returns mid-season, we still shouldn’t expect the old Burfict.

In a move that may have tipped the Bengals hand a bit, they resigned Rey Maualuga to a three year deal, placed a second round tender on Emmanuel Lamur and signed A.J. Hawk in free agency. Then in the draft the Bengals snagged linebacker P.J. Dawson out of TCU who many have compared loosely to Burfict and his story coming out of college. Knowing the history of the Bengals’ organization with lingering injuries, I think they were hedging their bets in case Burfict is unable to be on the field for the first part of the season.

There really are three options for Burfict at this point.

  1. He can be fine for training camp and lead the Bengals defense this season.
  2. He could go on the preseason PUP list. This basically means he would be unable to take part in training camp practices. This would allow for him to be on the team, in meetings and not take up a roster spot. The team could activate him at any time.
  3. He could go on the regular season PUP list. This means he would be required to miss the first six games of the regular season. This, of course would be the worst option, but potentially the most likely.

If he Misses Time

All hope is not lost though if Burfict is forced to miss time. He has proven himself to be a valuable member of this team. His leadership on the field is something that he could carry in camp and into the season to mentor the young linebackers (most notably Dawson). While his contributions on the field would be missed, Burfict has developed a road map of how a perceived troubled player can overcome and excel as he enters the NFL. This would again apply to Dawson.

The team needs Burfict this season, there is no question about that. Just look at how the defense struggled late in the season and especially in the playoff loss to the Colts. Hawk is a vet who we hope only has to spot fill at times and Dawson is a question mark. There is not a lot of confidence from the fan base at the options behind Burfict.

Other Health Issues

One other thing to note about the health of Burfict is the lingering effects from a hit to the crotch by Joe Flacco. Burfict had to deal with the side effects from a head injury and this is something that also kept him off the field. Assuming this is also something that has healed in the time frame in which he has been away due to the knee injury, means this should be a non-issue. However, players with head injuries who continue to play at the level he was playing are always at risk for another injury. Burfict may need to change his style of play and stop leading with his head to ensure his long-term durability and safety.

Season Outlook

The Bengals’ defense looks to have many young players who have the opportunity to play and make an impact on the defense. This makes the leadership from the veterans even more important. The hope is Burfict can be one of those leaders day one. It would not be the end of the season if he was to miss the first six weeks. It could benefit the Bengals to have such a good player healthy at the mid-way point of the season, a shot of energy even, to carry them through the second toughest schedule in the NFL this season.