2016 was a year to forget for the Cincinnati Bengals, and that includes linebacker Vontaze Burfict.
The Pro Bowl linebacker got off to a rocky start by missing the first three games of the season due to suspension. He did return in Week 4 and went on to have a great 11-game stretch that had him in contention for another Pro Bowl berth. But, he wound up being snubbed from the annual all-star game.
Then came a concussion late in the year, which led to Burfict missing the final two games of the regular season. While Burfict was productive during the games he played, 2016 was the third-straight season in which Burfict missed five or more games. Injuries and suspensions have prevented Burfict from taking the next step in his pro career and becoming a true superstar, not to mention a leader for this Bengals team.
Burfict is hoping at least the latter comes in 2017. He’s eying a captain spot on this year’s team, something he’s held just once in his first six professional seasons (2014).
“Definitely,” Burfict told Bengals.com when asked if he wants the ‘C,’ again. “I am a captain.”
Whether Burfict is a captain or not remains to be seen, but he’ll definitely need to take on a larger leadership role this season. With veteran leaders Andrew Whitworth and Domata Peko departing during the offseason, there’s a major void in the leadership department that Burfict is hoping to help fill.
“We lost some great leaders,” said Burfict. “We have a whole bunch of leaders in here. But certain guys are stepping up now.”
Another leader the Bengals lost this offseason is long-timer starting middle linebacker Rey Maualuga. The void he leaves is one Burfict knows he must help overcome.
“Rey was a leader and I always followed in his footsteps. I just have to do the same things,” Burfict said. “Be a role model, lead by example, make sure I’m in the playbook, make sure I’m helping young guys out. I think about it. If Nick Vigil messes up, it’s on me. I have to make sure they’re always ready and on time.”
It will be Burfict’s job to mentor a lot of the young linebackers who figure to have big roles in 2017, including Nick Vigil, Carl Lawson and even free agent newcomer Kevin Minter.
“I’ll have talks with them and make sure they understand what to do to stay in here and what to do if not this team, maybe make another team,” Burfict said. “Just tell them my journey so they don’t make the same mistakes I did. Just understand how to be a professional athlete.”
No one is denying the talents of Burfict, who is one of the NFL’s best linebackers when he’s on the field. But he’s been off the field too much during the last three years, which has kept him from reaching his true potential as a player and as a leader. Burfict is set to become a free agent in 2018 and it remains to be seen whether the Bengals will extend his contract before the season arrives. If the team allows him to play through the final year of his contract, how he does as a leader of this team could be a big factor in his next deal.
If Burfict goes out and has a great 2017 season while developing into a better leader, you can bet the Bengals will make him one of, if not the highest-paid linebacker in football.
Hopefully, he remains in Cincinnati for the foreseeable future.