For the third straight offseason, Vontaze Burfict is dealing with questions and uncertainty around his status with the Cincinnati Bengals.
In 2014, it was Burfict's impending free agency that was a big issue; he would eventually sign an extension that keeps him under contract through 2017.
However, a knee injury suffered midway through the year, along with concussions, limited Burfict to just five games that season. That surgery kept him sidelined for much of the 2015 offseason and questions lingered all offseason as to how long he would be out to start the 2015 season, if any time. He would go on to open the season on the PUP list and miss six games to start the season while recovering. Burfict still went on to rack up 74 tackles, five pass deflections and two interceptions while helping Cincinnati notch 12 wins and an AFC North crown.
Now, the big offseason concern for Burfict is his three-game suspension this coming season for repeated violations of safety-related playing rules. To this point, Burfict hasn't received a lot of public support from anyone outside of Cincinnati as he's been labeled as a dirty player by many players, analysts and fans.
The good news is, Burfict's Bengals teammates and coaches have rallied around him and showed support during what has to be one of the tougher times during his NFL career. They're the ones who really know what Burfict is all about as he's the heart and soul of this defense.
Defensive tackle Domata Peko has seen Burfict rise from undrafted rookie to NFL star thanks in large part to the fire he brings to every practice.
"You can tell the difference of him not being there for the first week," Peko told the Cincinnati Enquirer. "It was awesome to have that type of person behind that’s freakin’ hungry. It's OTAs. It’s early. It’s good to have that type of attitude right now because it’s going to carry on to training camp and into the preseason. We’re a blessed team to have someone like that on our team."
Burfict knows the team looks to him for inspiration and to help bring the intensity in something as minor as a padless OTA session.
"I just like to set the tone," Burfict said. "‘G’ (defensive coordinator Paul Guenther) always tells us to strip the ball because we can’t tackle right now obviously, so go for the ball. That was my first, full, doing everything in practice and to come up with a turnover is huge for the defense just to set the tone. I’m looking for an interception and more fumbles."
While Burfict is set to miss the first three games of 2016, he still likes the position he's in compared to last year at this time. That's when Burfict was rehabbing and not getting to work with his teammates, something he couldn't stand going through.
"I feel good," Burfict said. "I’ve been out here conditioning with my teammates (after) not being able to do it last year. I just feel better. I feel a step ahead this year. I was a couple steps behind last year because I wasn’t able to do this. It’s just great to be out there with my teammates competing."
It also helps Burfict that he's getting to work with new guys like Karlos Dansby, Nick Vigil and Darien Harris for the first time. While Tez may be out for three games, he's getting the build the kind of chemistry now that he didn't get to last year.
"Working with the new guys, working with the young guys, developing them how you play, being a leader, setting a tone," Burfict said. "And just getting reps and doing the little things right that you can’t get right during the season because it’s late. Just perfecting your craft."
Thanks to being able to have a full offseason of work, Burfict says he feels like he's on the verge of taking his game to a new level.
"I think I’m at a different level," Burfict said. "I’ve experienced more, seen more, understand more. I’m the quarterback of the defense so I understand where my help is at now so I’ve just go to out there and make plays for the defense and just do my job."
As important as Burfict is to the Bengals, the team should be able to make it through the first three games without his services. His biggest impact is going to be felt down the stretch of the regular season and into the postseason if this team is able to make it there and attempt to make a run at the Super Bowl.