October 31, 2014

A Burfict Storm?

Prior to the hot stove of the 2012 NFL draft was lit, many draftniks saw Arizona State linebacker Vontaze Burfict as a first-round talent. 

Coming out of a state championship-winning team at Centennial High School in Corona, CA, Burfict was listed as a 5-star recruit by both Rivals.com and Scout.com and was the top high school linebacker in the country. 

This notoriety earned him an offer from Pac-10 powerhouse USC, though he’d eventually sign with Arizona State.  At the time, ASU coach Dennis Erickson compared him to Ray Lewis of the Ravens, and that comparison rode with him throughout his college career.  At 6’2 and 250 pounds, the comparison fits well physically, and Burfict’s penchant for vicious hits, fearlessness and intimidation likewise fit the mold. 

His Sun Devil career included 228 total tackles (22.5 for loss), 12 pass break-ups, 4 forced fumbles, 7 sacks, and an interception.  He plays the game angrily, full of violence and power.  His energy and aggression are obvious on film, and are in truth quite reminiscent of Baltimore’s Lewis. Ironically, many early mock drafts had the Ravens selecting Burfict in round one as his eventual replacement.

But things turned sour as his senior season concluded.  His hot-headed personality on the field—which was well-documented by then—wasn’t as excusable with ASU’s 2011 season spinning into oblivion.  The Sun Devils finished 6-7 (losing their last five straight), and Burfict’s Tempe Temper boiled over.  He finished his collegiate career with 37 games played, and a whopping 17 personal fouls.  Most were the result of him being unable to contain his emotions at critical points in games. Some directly resulted in Sun Devil losses.  Others resulted in him being benched, pulled, or ejected.

Nonetheless, his draft prospects looked excellent heading into the combine, and a strong showing there would have solidified his place on day one.

It didn’t happen.

Burfict looked down-right bad in the linebacker drills, was the slowest backer at the 40-yard dash, and reportedly soured teams in the interviews.  Worst of all, he was rumored to have tested positive for marijuana at the event.

He followed that train wreck up with a similar Hindenberg-esque collapse at the ASU pro day.  By many observer accounts, he seemed uncoordinated and out-of-shape.  Even flabby.  His 16 reps at the bench were embarrassing.  At that point, his draft prospects looked to be sinking faster than the Titanic.

And as it turned out, they did.  No team called his name that day, while 31 other linebackers were picked in 258 selections.

But he did do two things right that day in Tempe.  First, he improved upon his 5.09 forty time at the combine with a 4.93, and second, he struck up a long and fruitful conversation with one Marvin Lewis.

It was that conversation that led him to the Bengals once the last pick of round seven was announced.  The Bengals didn’t have to recruit him very hard.  The allure of playing for Lewis, the man that had talked him up, was clear.

The allure for the Bengals is the thought of catching a first round talent at an undrafted free agent’s price.  Undrafted players account for nearly 20% of all NFL rosters, and the Bengals have never been afraid of giving these guys a chance.

But an undrafted “mike” backer starting might be a stretch.

The middle linebacker in a 4-3 scheme is crucial to the success of the defense.  As linebacker coach Paul Guenther described current starter Rey Maualuga: “He should be the centerpiece of our defense.”  A tall order for a highly-drafted player, let alone a guy like Burfict.

Can Burfict push Rey Maualuga in the middle?

And it seems to be a position requiring a series of rare qualities, similar to a quarterback. The player that mans the middle must have smarts, durability, and reliability to do the job.  He must know the defense, and be confident enough to be a leader on the field.  Then to be a Ray Lewis caliber linebacker–a Hall of Fame caliber player– you need those things plus freakish physical ability, a knack for finding the ball, and a mean streak that would give Freddie Kruger nightmares.  Getting all those traits in one guy can seem to be a lifelong search.

For the man who brought Ray Lewis to Baltimore, it has been. After finding him in Baltimore for Ozzie Newsome, Marvin Lewis has been looking for that guy for Mike Brown’s Bengals since he came to Cincinnati.  Takeo Spikes refused the opportunity.  Kevin Hardy tried, but wasn’t up for it.  Nate Webster and Ahmad Brooks had injuries and immaturity derail their shots at it.  Odell Thurman had it all for one glorious season before flaming out on drugs and alcohol.  Then Dhani Jones finally stabilized things.  He was aces for smarts and a rock of reliability.  Sadly, nothing more.

Maualuga is the current attempt to catch lightning in a bottle, and he’s probably the closest thing to a complete package that Lewis has found.   But he too, has faults that go beyond football. Maualuga followed a lackluster 2011 season, his first in the middle, with a charge in February for misdemeanor assault.  The plaintiff settled with the linebacker out of court but an NFL suspension is possible, particularly considering his February 2010 DUI.  Some fans have begun to question his reliability off the field, and his capabilities on it.

These are the kinds of things that make a team re-evaluate their roster, and Maualuga knows it.  That’s why he watched the draft intently; concerned that Bengal brass might opt for his successor in the form of a Dont’a Hightower or Luke Kuechly. “We had two first-round picks and you hear these things going around,” Maualuga said to Bengals.com.  “Are they going to trade up to get this Cincinnati native or are they going to pick Hightower? I don’t know.” Lucky for him they didn’t trade up for Kuechly and passed on Hightower for more pressing needs. 

Thanks to Burfict, he may not be out of the woods yet.

Burfict gives the Bengals a chance to push Maualuga with a talented and cheap alternative.  His presence, at a minimum, will make Maualuga train his muscles harder, study his playbook closer, and mind his manners more carefully.  That alone helps the linebacker corps get better.  Worst case scenario: Burfict gets cut in camp and Maualuga has the confidence of everyone.  A small investment for a pretty big return in the grand scheme of the NFL.

Best case scenario: both Maualuga and Burfict challenge for the starting middle linebacker spot, and perhaps Burfict becomes a Pro Bowl playmaker in the center of the defense.  The Best case for Vontaze, the man, may be to get the guidance that Marvin Lewis offers, and realize his immense potential.  Coming to Cincy might have been the best move he could’ve made.

In the end, Burfict may be a player that takes Mike Zimmer’s defense to the next level; perhaps even championship level.  He might just have that freakish combination Marvin Lewis has been looking for. 

He might just be a Burfict Storm.