For much of his NFL career, Vontaze Burfict has been a player in need of guidance from his teammates and coaches. His reckless, yet passionate, on-field behavior has gotten him in trouble numerous times in the form of multiple fines and an NFL suspension. But, now, he is suddenly one of the most experienced players on the Cincinnati Bengals’ defense and in a position to be the one guiding young players.
Only Vincent Rey has more experience in the NFL than Burfict, among the linebacker group, and as a starter and star on the team, Burfict is in position to become a leader for not only the linebacker unit, but for the defense as a whole.
“Being a leader for all 11 guys is his charge now,” Bengals defensive coordinator Paul Guenther told Geoff Hobson of Bengals.com. “That has got to be his thing. We’ve had some guys that have been here and now they’re not around anymore. Now he has to take over the reins of being the guy and I think guys will look up to him because he’s a good player, he’s very, very smart, and he understands our system like that back of his hand.”
During the offseason, the Bengals lost some notable veteran players in Rey Maualuga and Domata Peko. Both were locker room leaders and guys who players like Burfict could look to for help. Now, a new generation is being brought into Cincinnati to field a defense that runs through Burfict.
“We’re still learning to play next to each other and we’re getting the kinks out,” second-year linebacker Nick Vigil said. “(Burfict’s) one of these guys he knows everything. He’s making calls and communicating very well so when you’re out there with him it’s a lot easier … The way he understands what the offense is going to do, he’ll call the play out before it happens just by formation. He’s an unbelievably good player.”
However, Burfict’s influence with the younger guys goes well beyond his on-field production.
“It looks like he’s the heart and soul of the defense,” rookie linebacker Jordan Evans said. “He knows everything. He makes sure everybody is right. As a young guy I just have to watch him and try to shadow him.”
Despite his reputation, Burfict is an absolute professional when it comes to his job in the NFL. His football IQ is as high as it gets and he is a fantastic leader in the locker room.
“He’s a very good people person,” linebacker Vincent Rey said. “You can talk to him. He’s just cool. He’s nice. Do anything for you if you just ask him.”
That said, on field production is still a key focus for Burfict. In recent years, his play has been hampered by injuries, which have both kept him off the field and slowed him down while on the field. In his lone Pro Bowl season (2013), he recorded a career high 177 tackles. Unfortunately, since then he hasn’t come close to that number for various reasons. The highest number of tackles he has had since was last year, when he recorded 101 total tackles, despite being suspended for the first three games and missing two other games due to injury.
Much of his injury problems—though, not those from 2016—stem from microfracture knee surgery, endured during the 2014 season. Luckily, it seems as though he is fully recovered now and feeling better than ever.
“Everything has felt great,” Burfict said. “Running wise. Field wise. Conditioning wise. This is the best I’ve felt.”
All that’s left is to tie everything together physically, mentally, and emotionally. In all three aspects, he has been garnering nothing but praise this offseason.
“Physically, he looks great. Mentally, he’s awesome, doing a great job,” said linebackers coach Jim Haslett. “The biggest thing for me is he’s being a leader. He’s taking control of the defense and I think that’s the most important thing in his development and where he’s going. If he can continue to do that and show leadership, that’s his next step in the game.”
A fully healthy, focused, and fit Burfict is a scary proposition for the rest of the NFL. You could see a clear difference in the Bengals’ standard of play last year when he was on the field and when he was off it. Going forward, Burfict is expected to help lead the Bengals’ defense to greatness both in his words and actions.