For the second straight year, the Bengals enter training camp with Vontaze Burfict set to miss time.
Last year, it was recovery from microfracture surgery that kept him out of camp, four preseason games and six regular-season contests. It's not quite as bad this year as Burfict isn't dealing with an injury, but his three-game suspension to open the year will affect how much he works in camp and the preseason.
Though by NFL rules he is allowed to, it turns out, Burfict won't be playing in the preseason this year. At least that's what Marvin Lewis claimed Tuesday at the Bengals' annual pre-training camp media luncheon.
"There's no reason for us to expose him to injury, because he's too valuable," Lewis said, via ESPN's Coley Harvey. "He and [Rey] Maualuga, the extension of them and [defensive coordinator] Paul [Guenther] on that field and into that huddle on Sunday is key to us. So we'll continue to protect those guys as much as we can."
Ideally, even suspended players will get some work in the preseason, but it looks as though Lewis wants those reps going to guys who will be able to play in the first three games. Still, you'd like to see every key player get some playing time in the preseason, but as we saw last year, it's not necessary for Burfict to keep playing at a high level. Burfict returned off the PUP list in Week 8 last year against the Steelers and after just a few practices that week he made a huge impact in that Week 8 win with five tackles. While most players need some time to get back to NFL speed after an injury or an offseason, Burfict didn't appear to need that as he made back-to-back tackles on the first two defensive plays of that Week 8 contest.
The difference, however, was Burfict got to work with the team and be in every meeting while he was on the PUP list, even if he couldn't practice. That's something Burfict won't get once his suspension kicks in, as he'll be barred from the Bengals facilities and not allowed to do anything with the organization.
Avoiding another illegal and/or dangerous hit on a player is something Burfict must do, as evidenced by his suspension. And, defensive coordinator Paul Guenther is intent on making sure he doesn't allow Burfict to make any questionable tackles going forward.
"What we're going to do is we're going to put our foot on the gas pedal and we're going to be smarter in those situations," Guenther said via Havey. "We have to understand that guys are targeting you -- they're targeting some players. They're going to try to get underneath your skin and try to do those type of things.
"That's been my whole M.O., that we're not changing how we play, we're not changing our style of play or how we play. We're going to be smarter situationally and emotionally."
Even with his looming suspension, Bengals owner Mike Brown still supports Burfict and wants the Pro Bowl linebacker in his corner every Sunday.
"Burfict is one hell of a football player," Brown said. "He makes a difference for our team. We want him on the field. And I regret that for three games this year we won't have him, but he'll be back then, and we expect outstanding play from him. He's a difference-maker. We're lucky to have him."
Though Burfict opened the 2015 season on the PUP list and missed six games, he still went on to rack up 74 tackles, five pass deflections and two interceptions while helping Cincinnati score 12 wins and an AFC North crown.
Now that health isn't a concern, the big question for Burfict in 2016 is how he'll respond from his three-game suspension, not to mention how/if he'll work to avoid the things that caused his suspension from happening again. 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, coaches and owner 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 can help Burfict make the changes he needs to become the best player he's capable of being. And as we know, that's a pretty great player.