At one point in his career, Vontaze Burfict was on the verge of becoming a top-three NFL linebacker.
But after two promising seasons to begin his career, Burfict has been derailed by injuries and suspensions during the last three seasons. Concussions and microfracture surgery limited him to just five games in 2014, and he wound up opening the 2015 season on PUP while recovering from the knee surgery.
Burfict would go on to play in 10 games that year, but he was never quite the impact player he was in 2013, easily the best season of football he’s put together. This past season, Burfict served a three-game season to begin what was a disastrous campaign for the Bengals.
Then came a concussion late in the year, which led to Burfict missing the final two games of a forgettable 6-9-1 season. While Burfict was productive during the games in which he played, 2016 was the third-straight season in which he missed five-plus games.
Now, Burfict is looking to get back to the player we saw in 2013 and even improve on that. This will be the first time since the 2014 offseason in which Burfict won’t have an offseason surgery to rehab through, nor a suspension to begin the season.
Burfict admits those issues led to him having a significant drop off in his level of play, but he’s ready to move past them.
"It set me back for pretty much, I would say two years because coming in you’re not able to mesh your whole body how you want to so you get other injuries," Burfict told The Cincinnati Enquirer. "This offseason I was able to focus on all the little muscles in my body, conditioning and doing all types of yogas and stuff like that. I feel great. I came in in great shape and I’m just here to try and lead the team."
A big reason why Burfict feels good about his offseason thus far is his newfound dedication to keeping his body healthy, both with conditioning and nourishment.
"Just eating right, knowing what to eat, counting my calories and stuff like that," said Burfict. "That was the biggest thing for me. Just counting my calories and just seeing my body transform was huge for me."
It may come as no surprise the Bengals had four of their six wins last season with Burfict in the lineup. Even when Burfict is at 70-percent of himself, he is still one of the NFL’s better backers, not to mention a major force in the Bengals’ defense. Having that for 16 games in 2017 would likely lead to more than six wins, but Burfict is obviously hoping to accomplish more.
"I just wanted to just fix my game, be a better leader, show up to everything on time, get stronger, faster, and I would say I did all those things," Burfict said. "And a leader is still in motion."
Leadership will be something the Bengals need from Burfict now more than ever. Gone are long-time defensive leaders Domata Peko and Rey Maualuga, paving the way for Burfict to take on a major role in that department.
"I know – I’ve just got to help the guys out, the young guys out, and do everything little right because they’re watching me," Burfict said. "Just be that leader, be that role model and lead by example. Don’t ever do too much, just make sure you do your job, and they’ll follow along."
Defensive Paul Guenther is thrilled with what he’s seen of Burfict thus far, which is mirroring the All-Pro-caliber backer we saw in 2013.
"He’s come back in tremendous shape," Guenther said. "I have a picture of him walking out of the tunnel at the Pro Bowl, and he looked lean and like he should, and I said to him the other day man, I pulled that picture out there, and I said, man, you look just like that guy again.
"He’s come back, and he looks in great shape, he’s got his weight where he wants it, and it’ll help him be faster. He’s not carrying as much weight, so it’ll help him out with the longevity of his career and also his playing."
Last year, Burfict reported to offseason workouts "grossly overweight." It certainly appeared to linger into the regular season, as Burfict endured a rough start in his first few games back. The Bengals didn’t allow him to play in the preseason as to avoid injury, so, he didn’t get much practice in before getting thrust into action in Week 4.
It sounds like Burfict is on the right path to getting back to the star we saw him blossoming into before his recent setbacks. That will be critical to the Bengals getting back into the playoffs for the fifth time in Burfict’s sixth NFL season.