Vontaze Burfict's name has become synonymous with a draft prospect's stock (or worth) falling dramatically. NFL teams avoided Burfict like the plague when the 2012 NFL draft rolled around, and a player who was rated as the No. 2 overall prospect before the season began found himself on the outside looking in.
Enter the Cincinnati Bengals.
Burfict is a rare player whose stock fell like the stock market on Black Tuesday without ever having an off-field issue. Instead of DUIs or multiple children, Burfict's stock plummeted due to a poor attitude, a reckless style of play and a lack of contrition about his issues. Marvin Lewis saw something more, though.
Burfict's story didn't end with the 2012 draft because he didn't give up, and many players would have. Instead he's used his entry to the NFL as an undrafted free agent as motivation. Just five weeks into the season, and Burfict is starting at weakside linebacker.
Playing middle linebacker at Arizona State allowed Burfict to develop a reputation as a freelancer. At times that worked out great, as he became a YouTube sensation delivering big hits over the middle. What those YouTube clips didn't show was how often Burfict took himself out of plays simply by not playing disciplined, assignment football.
Burfict was known as a hard hitter at ASU, and he's still showing that big-hit ability, but now he's doing so within the defense instead of by seeking out plays on his own.
Take this run play, for example. Nothing spectacular, but Burfict plays his assignment and reads the offensive line to make the tackle.
This is an example of an NFL-level play, as Burfict scrapes down the line of scrimmage and makes the tackle. The player at Arizona State would have been in the backfield trying to hit the quarterback.
During his time at Arizona State, Burfict never played special teams. He had zero experience before coming to the Bengals, but the team made special teams a big part of his training camp and preseason routine. Burfict is paying them back with big plays.
Being a starting linebacker and still hustling down on kickoffs goes to show just how much Burfict has changed from one year ago. Had Arizona State asked Burfict to help on kickoffs, a fight would have ensued. Now we see a mature player who is willing to make personal sacrifices for the good of the team.
Compare these two quotes from Burfict, one at the NFL Scouting Combine in February 2012 and one from Week 5 of the NFL season.
"I could've played better. That's what hurt me at times. The coaches kind of messed me up. I didn't know if I would start a game or be benched. It hurt me, but I tried to fight through it."—ESPN
“(Lewis) 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.”—SportsRadioInterview.com
Cynics will argue that Burfict has learned to spout off the team-first verbiage, but having watched every game Burfict has played in the last two-and-a-half years, you can tell he's a different player. And he's getting better each week.
If Burfict's conversion lasts, the Bengals just might have the steal of the 2012 NFL draft.