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Bengals roster breakdown, 90-in-90: Vontaze Burfict leading the defense

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Burfict is easily one of the game’s best defenders when he’s healthy and has his head on straight.

Vontaze Burfict is entering arguably the biggest season of his young career.

Will the Cincinnati Bengals extend his contract before the year begins, and where does he stand on the roster heading into next season?

Vontaze Burfict

Height: 6’1”

Weight: 255 pounds

College: Arizona State

Hometown: Inglewood, Calif.

Experience: 6th-year player in 2017

Draft Status: Undrafted in 2012

Cap Status

In 2017, the final year of Burfict’s current deal, he will earn a base salary of $3,750,000 and a workout bonus of $200,000, have a cap hit of $4,725,000 and a dead cap value of $775,000 if released, according to Spotrac. He’s getting paid far below the amount other top linebackers are making, but that probably won’t continue for much longer.

Background

At his best, Burfict is a top-10 linebacker in the NFL and a borderline top-five backer (in terms of just pure linebackers, not 3-4 outside rushers). He’s also been one of the best value players the Bengals have ever had. Earning just over $4.7 million per year, Burfict is listed as the NFL’s 41st-highest paid linebacker in terms of average yearly salary.

His best season as a pro came in 2013, where a then-second-year Burfict racked up a league-high 171 tackles, three sacks, six pass deflections, a forced fumble and an interception. Some thought he’d become the best linebacker in football, and it only looked like Burfict would get better entering his third NFL season.

However, concussions and a lingering knee issue limited Burfict to just 15 games during the next two seasons. Then came a three-game suspension for repeated violations of the NFL’s safety rules to open the 2016 season.

Combined with more concussion issues, Burfict ended up missing five games last year. In just 11 games, Burfict racked up 101 tackles, two sacks, two interceptions, and one forced fumble. He finished as Pro Football Focus’ sixth-best linebacker (which includes middle and outside linebackers).

Burfict’s Week 9 performance against the New York Giants was one of the best any linebacker had in the 2016 season:

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, something he’s striving to be better at in 2017 with Rey Maualuga being let go this offseason.

“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.”

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 begins. 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 can put his past behind him and stay healthy, Cincinnati’s defense could take a big step forward in the upcoming season and as a result, Burfict will get himself a big payday.

Odds: 99.99 percent.