It’s fitting that Vontaze Burfict wears tiger stripes while he plays, rather than wings or a halo. Because, with almost $800,000 in fines in five years of play, no one would ever consider the 26-year-old Cincinnati Bengals linebacker to be an angel.
That’s good when you want a linebacker who sets the tone for the rest of the defense. It’s bad when a penalty swaps the 5-yard loss he just gave the other team for 15 free yards and a first down. And another fine.
But Cincinnati needs Vontaze Burfict. He’s in the final year of his contract and the Cincy brass needs to ink him to a new deal. Yes, he must work on his decision-making on the field. But when he’s on, it’s on. He has produced at every level of the game – first as a five-star recruit and perhaps the highest-ranked prospect to ever sign with Arizona State, then as a 2010 All-American, and as a Pro Bowler who led the National Football League with 171 tackles in 2013.
What probably lit the latest fire under Burfict was his exclusion from being drafted in the 2012 NFL draft. He was not selected after there were questions about his discipline and conditioning. Oh, and the failed drug test at that year’s NFL combine probably didn’t help.
No one batted an eye when Cincinnati signed him as an undrafted free agent. But those same eyes were as big as dinner plates when Vontaze Burfict started 14 games and notched 127 tackles in his first year. Two years later, he signed a $20 million contract extension.
He hasn’t played a full season since 2013 because of injuries and suspensions – including last year, when he was forced to sit out the first three games for violation of player safety rules stemming from a head-to-head shot on Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown in January 2016. Even with that, he still made 101 tackles in 11 games during the 2016 season.
Now, thankfully, all the pieces look like they’re falling into place. Burfict fully participated in OTAs for the first time in three years. He is reportedly in much better shape than last offseason and this is his contract year. He also won’t turn 27 until Week 3, so he has a good amount of gas left in the tank. Cincinnati needs to lock him into a long-term deal before other teams come calling.
Because unlike the 2012 draft, no one is going to overlook Burfict now.