For the fourth time in as many seasons, Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict is set to miss games to start an NFL regular season.
On Friday, news broke that the former Pro Bowl defender will be missing the first four games of 2018 because of an infraction of Performance Enhancing Drugs (PED) rules.
Burfict is planning to appeal the decision on the grounds that he was prescribed medications to aid in recoveries from shoulder and concussion injuries he suffered, in which he unknowingly broke league rules.
Some believe he has grounds to win an appeal, given this excuse and his lack of PED suspensions in the past, but his track record of spotty behavior may tarnish that defensive stance.
Regardless, the Bengals face the prospect of losing one of their best players for the first month of the year and it leaves a big hole on a defense that ranked 30th in the league against the run in 2017. This piece of news is a cold splash of water on an otherwise nice start to 2018 free agency for the club.
At first blush, the signing of free agent linebacker Preston Brown brought excitement in the form of a much-needed boost in a starter flanking Burfict. Now, however, the Bengals are faced with tough choices and catch-22 situations.
There is little doubt that when Burfict is on the field and healthy, he’s a top-five linebacker in the league. Unfortunately, because of time missed because of health and suspensions, he’s become a pretty unreliable player for a team that needs him.
Hence, the conundrum.
Before we go over some of the options the team can explore, let’s explore some of the career highlights, issues and other factors to consider with No. 55 since his arrival in 2012.
- In his first full season as a starter, Burfict made the Pro Bowl in 2013.
- Burfict has missed 29 games over the past four seasons (including playoffs and excluding forthcoming four-game suspension), due to injuries and suspensions.
- In the two seasons (2012, 2013) where Burfict played all 16 regular season games, the Bengals finished in the top-10 in overall defense both years.
- In the four seasons he hasn’t played complete seasons (2014-2017), Cincinnati’s overall defense never ranked higher than 11th.
- Burfict is in the second year of a three-year, $33 million extension with the Bengals.
- If Burfict’s four-game suspension is upheld, the guarantees in that contract are voided in 2018 and he will forfeit roughly $11.3 million and give the Bengals nearly $5.75 million of additional space this year, should he be released.
- Of the 29 total games he has missed in career, 10 have been due to suspensions (again, not counting the forthcoming four-game hit).
- Excluding the total salaries lost from suspensions, Burfict has been penalized $295,762 in his career for illegal hits, gestures and the like. He’s been fined nine total times in his six-year career.
- Fair or not and the used hits as examples being credible or not, Burfict has become an easy target for scrutiny by the league.
- After essentially single-handedly sewing up the Bengals’ first playoff win since 1991, Burfict was a major party involved in the embarrassing, last-minute implosion by the team in the 2015 Wild Card game against the hated Steelers.
Stay the course and work with most of what they have:
Though four games is a significant hit to the Bengals, it’s not like this is a foreign issue to the club. Though they were up-and-down last season, the coaches still seem to like both Nick Vigil and Jordan Evans as they continue to grow as NFL linebackers.
Though he isn’t the play-maker Burfict is, Marvin Lewis can still rely on the versatile Vincent Rey, while also placing Brown in a significant role. Throw in a mid-round rookie and the Bengals may be able to get past Burfict’s absence through those first four games.
What will be interesting is to see how the schedule plays out for the club in those first four games. In 2016, the Bengals faced a critical Week 3 matchup against the Steelers during the first of Burfict’s series of suspensions, while he also missed last year’s important season opener against the Ravens.
Both of those contests ended up being critical losses for the team, and if the schedule-makers throw in another AFC North game or two in those first four games, other options might need to be explored.
Load up at linebacker in the draft and await his return:
A sound strategy by the Bengals might be to look at Burfict’s return from a suspension as an added bonus, of sorts. What I mean is that with Brown now in the fold, the Bengals can also grab another talented linebacker with a high pick who is ready to play on day one and then add Burfict back to a reloaded defense.
It’s akin to the thought process of getting a high pick back in his second year if they missed a significant chunk of their first as icing on the roster’s cake. The position group is top-heavy this year, with Roquan Smith, Rashaan Evans and Tremaine Edmunds leading the charge, and they could bring youth and athleticism to a defense that could use it.
Still, there are risks involved here. The Bengals appear to be making some form of changes this offseason, but we don’t know if that means Lewis will consistently play his youngsters. And, of course, if these guys don’t pan out for one reason or another, the team will be worse for it.
Use that $5.75 million in freed up 2018 space to pursue more useful free agents and also add through the draft:
There is a contingency of Bengals fans who are simply fed up with Burfict’s penchant for reaching national headlines for the wrong reasons. The headaches and risks simply don’t match the pay and production and they feel it’s time for the club to move in a different direction.
They did so with Adam Jones, though that seemed to be more of a sound financial decision, based on his age. Still, might the Bengals want to send another locker room message?
As mentioned above, the Bengals will be off the hook for Burfict’s salary and cap number, should the four-game suspension be upheld. With that aforementioned $5.75 million in space should they release Burfict, the Bengals could use that money to bolster other areas of their team.
Tyrann Mathieu has signed with the Texans, and Ndamukong Suh is a pipe dream, but there are others who could help at linebacker, in the secondary or in the interior of the offensive line. I suppose this is more of a quality versus quantity argument, as well as one on help because of availability.
What should the Bengals do with Vontaze Burfict in light of his most recent suspension?
This poll is closed
Stay the course, stick with what they have and wait for his return.
Load up at linebacker in the draft and await his return.
Cut bait and pursue more free agent options, while also adding through the draft.
It’s too early to decide.