As we continue this countdown, it's important to note the variety of reasons in which we place players on the list. Tyler Eifert kicked off the list at No. 10, and even though he looks set for super-stardom, the rationale behind his placement centered around his needing to prove he isn't just a one-year wonder. A different situation brings linebacker Vontaze Burfict in at No. 9.
The star-crossed linebacker has been to a Pro Bowl and has largely produced at a high level when on the field, but an out of control ending to the year overshadowed his production after coming off of the PUP List last year. This isn't about Burfict's talent level beyond just one season, as we already know the answer to that one. It's about the circumstances around the Wild Card loss that has us believing he has something to prove to everyone--not just Bengals fans--in 2016.
Why he makes the list:
Reckless Play: Burfict is a guy fans love to have on the team they root for, but is largely disliked among other fan bases. He flies around making big plays and hits, while walking the fine line between being dirty and/or being an enforcer. In the rough-and-tumble AFC North, Burfict has the kind of ferocity the Bengals have long lacked--even in the Marvin Lewis renaissance era. Because of a number of questionable plays over the course of his four-year career and an explosive ending to the Wild Card game last year, Burfict is serving a three-game suspension to start the 2016 season, which definitely hurts the Bengals. The ironic thing is that Burfict is actually a very heady linebacker in all phases, it's just that he lets his emotions get the best of him at times.
Previous Injuries Because of Poor Form: We're mostly harkening back to 2014 here, but Burfict was in and out of the lineup often in 2014 and eventually landed on Injured Reserve which bled into last season because of offseason microfracture surgery requiring extensive rehab. He totally shot out of the gate in 2015 in the first battle with Pittsburgh and played at a high level from there out, but with him set to play three more games in 2016 than last year, the team will need him to rein in the spearing and headhunting so they have him for the rest of the year.
What he needs to prove:
Cleaner Play and Reining in Emotions: It's so hard to say this because his style of play breeds intimidation from the opposition, but for his own safety, ability to continue to make big plays for the team, and remaining off the suspension list, he simply can't continue to be a repeat offender. He can still have a reputation as a big hitter who can turn the tide of a game and punish would-be receivers, but with the league tightening down on head hits, he has to pay more attention. He can't help the Bengals if he isn't suiting up for games.
Another Quick Start After a Hiatus: As I mentioned earlier, Burfict didn't contribute through the first six games of 2016 because he was rehabbing a major offseason procedure. If there was a silver lining to the missed time aside from him bouncing back admirably from a procedure often ending athletes' careers, it was his great performance against Pittsburgh to help propel the team to a much-needed win. As proof of his focus through the suspension and a possible changing of his behavioral stripes, another quick start, this time slated to be against the Miami Dolphins in Week 4 on Thursday Night, would inject a big boost to the Bengals early in their season.