There are NFL players that have raw talent that stun head coaches just as much as the fans. There are players with immense skill and knowledge, that although lack the physical tools, throw distant smirks at their opponents who are picking up their cleats and jaws 30 yards back.
There are players who win – and then there’s Vontaze Burfict.
When watching Burfict during a game, fans could hardly imagine that this second-year linebacker, who stalks running backs like prey and throws punishing tackles, was considered one of the best linebackers in his draft class yet went undrafted.
After Burfict fell off the draft boards in 2012 and the Bengals picked him up as an undrafted free agent, something clicked.
Every NFL team saw the raw talent and the potential Burfict had. But with today’s NFL teams showing more interest in a player’s character, Burfict was a huge question mark with his discipline and temperament issues, and was considered too much of a risk for a first or second round draft prospect.
After a less than stellar combine where an overweight Burfict ran one of the slowest 40s for a linebacker (4.93 and 5.09), and let his attitude get the best of him, teams apparently thought he was too much of a gamble for any round in the draft.
The rise to the top is a mountainous ladder, while the fall is a temper and 4/10ths of a second.
For Burfict, it was all the motivation he needed. Crushed, but never defeated, a humbled Burfict wrote letters to every NFL team for a second chance. The Cincinnati Bengals and head coach Marvin Lewis were the only ones that considered it.
And what a second chance he’s made of it.
On Wednesday, Burfict was named the AFC Defensive Player of the Week after leading the Bengals with a season-high 15 tackles and a forced fumble that he recovered and returned for touchdown in the Bengals’ 41-20 rout over the Browns.
It is the first time a Bengals’ linebacker has received the honor since Brian Simmons in 2005 – and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
In 2012, Burfict played in place of the late Thomas Howard who suffered a knee injury early in the season and recorded a team-high 127 tackles his rookie season.
So far this season, Burfict has become the cornerstone, as well as the voice of the Bengals’ defense as he leads the team and the NFL with 118 tackles and six games still to play. He is six tackles ahead of Buffalo’s rookie phenom Kiko Alonso who is well on his way to a defensive rookie of the year title.
Head coach Marvin Lewis has likened Burfict to the former great Baltimore Raven, Ray Lewis:
“He reminds me of Ray, much like Ray reminded me of Greg Lloyd,” Lewis said during his weekly radio program. “Ray took that and ran with it. Vontaze has got exceptional ability and intelligence. And he’s a homebody type of kid.
Coach Lewis’ reference to Ray Lewis might be more accurate than some think with the tempo and aggressive style of play Burfict shows up with every week. So far this season, Burfict has been flagged for a team-high seven personal foul penalties.
Even though some have been questionable, fouls like the one against the Browns in which he retaliated for a teammate and pushed a Browns’ lineman have been a quasi-hallmark for Burficts’ style of play as well as his character. He never stops hustling and he always looks out for his teammates.
While some feel that Burficts’ character is still cause for concern, one thing that is certain is if he keeps up this torrid pace, he will have a good shot at defensive player of the year in 2013.
And all that it took was a second look by a head coach who thought something was there. To head coach Marvin Lewis, the second look provided huge dividends.
“It’s like that lump of coal,” said Coach Lewis. “I really believed there was a diamond there.”