Vontaze Burfict saving his career with breakout rookie season
I think you're looking at Vontaze Burfict as a guy that has probably dropped as much in this draft, in terms of ratings, as probably any prospect in recent times. -- ESPN's Mel Kiper
Heading into the 2011 college football season, Arizona State's Vontaze Burfict was on just about every NFL team's radar. Amid what looked like a shaky 2012 linebacker draft class, Burfict stood out as a possible star.
And then, everything changed.
Burfict had 69 tackles and a career-high five sacks as a junior at Arizona State, but also suffered through a rash of personal-foul penalties that brought into question his discipline levels. Given a chance to redeem himself at the NFL combine, Burfict passed the buck on that issue, failed a drug test, then posted a 40 time of more than five seconds -- slowest of the inside linebackers.
His stock plummeted. "He needs constant direction on and off the field and will need a lot of hand-holding and one-on-one coaching to be successful," SI.com's draft profile read. "You would be hard-pressed to find a player whose draft status was more negatively affected by discipline issues," wrote NFL.com.
Burfict went from a near-lock first-round pick to a possible late-round reach to out of the draft completely.
So, how did we get from there to here? Over the past three weeks, Burfict has started for the Cincinnati Bengals and, more than that, has played all but four snaps on defense. He was on the field for all 66 Dolphins plays in Week 5 and may have been the Bengals' best defender in a disappointing Week 6 loss to Cleveland.
Well, Burfict's turnaround starts with Marvin Lewis.
Lewis' Bengals -- a team familiar with red-flagged players -- rolled the dice by signing Burfict as an undrafted free agent in April, after he slipped through the draft without hearing his name called. By the time training camp opened in August, Lewis knew he had found a gem.
"Oh yeah, unquestionably," Lewis told ESPN.com when he was asked if Burfict could be an NFL starter.
Less than two months later, Lewis' words proved prophetic. And it's that relation with Lewis that might be driving Burfict's rise back from the depths more than anything.
Burfict notably clashed with ex-Arizona State head coach Dennis Erickson during his collegiate playing days -- "I let Coach Erickson’s coaching mess with me on the field and it totally messed with my head, especially on the field," Burfict told Sports Radio 910 in Phoenix. Burfict's relationship with Lewis, though, has, thus far, been a complete 180.
"It’s been a good journey, since I’ve been under Marvin Lewis’ wing," Burfict said during that same interview. "He took me in, and he coaches me how I need to be coached. If I mess up twice on one play that he already told me about, he gets to me. He starts yelling at me.
"But that’s what I need. … I love being under his wing because he talks to me like I’m a grown man and he understands you’re not supposed to always yell at a player, (but) sometimes I need to be yelled at."
Still, Lewis' tutelage could take Burfict only so far during the offseason. Which brings us to the second factor in Burfict's resurgence: opportunity.
Burfict stumbled into extra playing time in the preseason when Rey Maualuga was sidelined by an injury, and he performed well enough given that shot to make the Bengals' final 53-man roster. Then, the door swung open again for Burfict in Week 2, as Thomas Howard suffered a season-ending knee injury.
The Bengals plugged Burfict into Howard's role at WILL linebacker, requiring him to transition from his normal inside spot to the outside. He made his first start the next week and recorded seven tackles in Week 4.
"He's getting settled. He's getting more comfortable," Cincinnati linebackers coach Paul Guenther told Bengals.com. "He does everything I ask and he's playing more and more. The thing about him is that he studies and prepares away from the building."
That scouting report from Guenther probably would be music to Burfict's ears -- and it's a world away from the vibe on Burfict heading into April's draft. It's been just a few months, but Burfict deserves credit for flipping his reputation on its head. Burfict's early immaturity and lack of discipline have vanished for the time being, revealing what was there all along: an exceptionally talented football player. Now, the challenge for Burfict is to leaves those problems in the past.