Vontaze Burfict has been plagued the past two seasons with injuries and a suspension, which have kept him from being on the field early in the season. Two years ago Burfict was still rehabbing following microfracture surgery that caused him to miss the first six games of the season. In 2016 he was hit with a three-game suspension to start the year after his personal foul against Antonio Brown in the January 2016 wild card game triggered the NFL to take action. He also came into camp last year with a foot injury and overweight.
Apparently having an uneventful offseason has really done wonders for Burfict after he dropped about 15 pounds, reported to camp in great shape and caught his defensive coordinator’s eyes.
"He's probably in the high 240s. He's played at 260, 265. He's moving good," Guenther said via Katherine Terrell of ESPN. "I told him it'll add three years to your career if you stay at that level. He can be just as physical at 245, 250 as he can be at 265."
The fact Burfict is preparing for Week 1 for the first time in two seasons has been huge in his preparation.
"It's not, 'I’m going to start playing Week 4, Week 8, whatever it is; I'm going to wait to get in shape.' He's coming back in tremendous shape, Guenther said. “He's got the right mindset, so we're going to need him to be that high-level performer."
One of Burfict’s biggest criticisms as of late has been his lack of speed and agility to cover some of the more lethal tight ends in the NFL. This was on display during the Washington game when Jordan Reed ran wild, and in one instance easily out ran Burfict for a touchdown. If Burfict manages to keep his weight down it could help improve that aspect of his game quite a bit.
Another way Burfict has improved is by playing smarter, something that was expected of him last year and in all years moving forward. He was only flagged once for unnecessary roughness last season.
"I think he was still as intense emotionally, and I'll never want to take that edge away from him," Guenther said of Burfict’s improved control over his emotions. "I think he played a lot smarter and he backed off things. Teams maybe tried to prod at him a bit and he backed off. His emotional level was still high and I think guys feed off that a bit. You don't want a Mike linebacker who doesn't say anything. I thought he was a lot more professional, let's put it that way. It's always going to be a work in progress with him. I think he understands that. I think he did a better job of taking a step in the right direction last year."
That was probably the biggest improvement seen from Burfict last season. It is clear he has all the talent in the world, but sometimes when he acts before he thinks it can really turn into a scary situation. That’s true both from a health aspect and the negative impact that reckless play can have on a game. At a minimum, you give a team a free 15 yards, which could mean adding points that completely shift the game. And more importantly, Burfict’s often instinctual play has caused physical harm to opponents.
It was clear this offseason the Bengals wanted to get faster as a team. Defensively the team drafted a pair of new pass rushers, Carl Lawson and Jordan Willis, and brought in Kevin Minter from Arizona who was incredible in coverage last season. Clearly, Burfict, whose contract expires after this season, got the message. He and Dre Kirkpatrick, who just signed a new deal with the Bengals this offseason, have been working out together in the offseason, and they have even posted some videos of the process.
This should be refreshing to see for fans. A portion of the fan base may not like it, but Burfict is the heart and soul of the defense. Many of his teammates look to him as the leader of that unit, so seeing him put in this amount of extra work before the season will boost everyone’s efforts.