Meet the NFL's Next Dominant Linebacker: Vontaze Burfict

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Meet the NFL's Next Dominant Linebacker: Vontaze Burfict
Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

There were 253 players selected in the 2012 NFL draft, including 30 linebackers, and Cincinnati Bengals second-year starter Vontaze Burfict wasn't one of them.

Now, he's leading the NFL in tackles and becoming one of the NFL's next dominant linebackers. 

Every NFL team had a number of chances to select the former Arizona State All-American, but nobody pulled the trigger because of "character concerns." These issues were widely documented by every print publication, website, radio station and television program out there. 

In case you've forgotten, here's a quick rundown of the good, bad and ugly of Burfict's stock plummeting before the 2012 draft. 

 

The Good

Just after the 2011 season ended, Todd McShay of Scouts Inc. (via ESPN's Ted Miller) moved Burfict from No. 15 to No. 21 on his big board. 

Questions about Burfict's on-field maturity and mental makeup have hurt his stock, but he's a physically gifted player with the tools of a top-10 prospect. He has the power to deliver heavy blows and solid range and awareness in underneath coverage.

At that point, McShay still considered Burfict a first-round pick, but it was the next few months leading up to the draft where things really started to fall apart.

 

The Bad

"I talked to some teams, and I told them I had smoked marijuana before," Burfict told NFL.com. "It's not like I'm the only person that has ever done that."

This was a red flag for teams, as the whole "everyone else is doing it" excuse indicated there was a lack of accountability for his decisions and actions. 

 

The Ugly

Burfict told NFL.com

The coaches (at Arizona State) kind of messed me up, like, I didn't know if I was going to start a game, I didn't know if I was going to be benched. So, it hurt me at times, but I tried to fight through it.

Coaches don't look fondly on players who throw others under the bus. 

Combined with a poor showing at the combine and unfavorable reviews from a recently fired Arizona State coaching staff, Burfict was seen as a player without a future in the NFL. 

According to ESPN's Alyssa Roenigk, it was Burfict's mother, Lisa Williams, who reached out to him after his disastrous combine performance and encouraged him to keep going, saying, "You can't quit now."

Burfict spoke confidently days before the draft that he'd make a difference for an NFL team, telling Aaron Wilson of Scout.com (via Fox Sports Arizona): 

The team that drafts me will see that my work ethic isn't questionable at all. I realize how much I really want this for my life. If teams pass on me, they're going to have to face me for the next 10 years. If they don't want me, they're going to miss out. 

Players will often say things like that, but very rarely can he look at the entire league and say, "Told you so." 

Burfict has been fantastic for the Bengals over the past two seasons, but he's only in this position for two reasons: He worked his tail off and was given an opportunity. 

Whether that opportunity would ever come was a big question when Burfict went undrafted, but it was Bengals coach Marvin Lewis who gave him a chance. 

Speaking before the Bengals rookie minicamp in 2012, Lewis laid it out there for Burfict, via Joe Reedy of Cincinnati.com

You weren't in shape your last season at Arizona State. Get rid of the selfishness in your play. Learn how to bend your knees. Let us coach you and let’s see if you are what people thought you could have been. Because I have no idea who you are and so you’re starting from scratch here.

"Starting from scratch" must have been a relief for Burfict. There was so much made of his issues during his final season at Arizona State that he needed to feel like he could get past it, and Lewis gave him that chance. 

Lewis acknowledged that he saw something special in Burfict:

What he does now from this point forward is going to determine whether or not he can be a NFL player. I think he has some ability. When you watch the tape there are a lot of things he didn’t do very well. But he does some things I can’t coach that he can do.

Sometimes when coaches take a chance on a player, they're rewarded for that decision. Burfict has not only contributed to the Bengals defense, but he's one of the unquestioned leaders of the No. 5-ranked scoring unit in the NFL. 

 

The Numbers

According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Burfict is the No. 3-ranked outside linebacker in the NFL, trailing only the Denver Broncos' Von Miller and Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Lavonte David.

Leading Tacklers (Week 13)
Player Team Tackles
Vontaze Burfict Cincinnati Bengals 131
Kiko Alonso Buffalo Bills 125
Paul Posluszny Jacksonville Jaguars 113
NaVorro Bowman San Francisco 49ers 111
Lavonte David Tampa Bay Buccaneers 108

ESPN

There's a whole lot more than your basic tackling statistics on PFF, and one of the most important stats they track for defensive players is "tackling efficiency."

It calculates how many missed tackles a player has in relation to the total number of tackles he attempts. In that category, Burfict leads all 4-3 outside linebackers by averaging a missed tackle per every 20.5 attempts. 

4-3 Outside Linebackers (Tackling Efficiency)
Rank Player Team Efficiency ratio
1 Vontaze Burfict Cincinnati Bengals 20.5
2 Jacquian Williams New York Giants 13.3
3 Dont'a Hightower New England Patriots 13.0
4 Zach Brown Tennessee Titans 11.8
5 James Anderson Chicago Bears 11.3

Pro Football Focus

Only including outside linebackers who have seen at least 75 percent of their teams' defensive snaps this season, Burfict has the fewest missed tackles with six. He has the most tackles in the NFL and also happens to miss the fewest.

 

Film Room

We'll start with instincts.

On this play against the San Diego Chargers, you'll see his instincts on the field.  

NFL Rewind

The Chargers called an inside zone run with running back Ryan Mathews. The center was supposed to be able to peel off the block on the defensive tackle and get to Burfict, but he never got there. 

NFL Rewind

Once Mathews had the ball, he had a clear lane up the middle of the field. Burfict recognized that from his linebacking position and headed toward that lane. 

NFL Rewind

The two down defensive tackles did a great job of closing the lane off by fighting through their blocks. Mathews saw the cutback lane open up and planted his right foot to cut back toward the "new" free lane. 

Burfict could have seen his initial lane and went full steam ahead toward closing what was a big hole for Mathews. Instead, he played under control, saw the play develop and used his instincts to know what Mathews was going to do.

NFL Rewind

Mathews cut back, and Burfict was there waiting for him. 

Many times you'll see the linebacker over-pursue that play and allow the running back a cutback lane. Based on the initial lane Mathews saw when he got the ball, which the linebacker would see too, it's easy to see why linebackers would react that way. 

This is an example of great linebacking play and overall team defense. The defensive linemen were able close off the lane initially. 

 

Physicality

Here's another inside zone run, but this time it's against the Detroit Lions

NFL Rewind

Burfict met the left guard, Rob Sims, head-on as he pulled around to block for running back Reggie Bush. 

NFL Rewind

Here's the collision at the second level of the defense. 

NFL Rewind

Burfict was able to get off the block and make the tackle for a minimal gain.

There's no way to play linebacker at the NFL level without being extremely physical, and we've seen examples of Burfict's instincts and physicality inside the box against the run.

But what about when he's singled out in space against a ball-carrier?

 

In Space

Here's another play against the Chargers. 

NFL Rewind

There's under two minutes left in the first half, and the Chargers had the ball at midfield. It was 2nd-and-15, and quarterback Philip Rivers dumped it off in the flat to Mathews.

NFL Rewind

Once Mathews caught the ball and turned upfield, you can see it's just the two of them one-on-one out in space. 

NFL Rewind

There was plenty of room for Mathews if Burfict wasn't able to make the tackle. The red circles are the closest Bengals defenders. 

NFL Rewind

Burfict was able to make the tackle behind the line of scrimmage. The Chargers weren't able to convert on 3rd-and-long and were forced to punt, and the play by Burfict could have saved the Bengals some points. 

 

The Future

There's no denying what Burfict means to the Bengals defense right now, especially after losing Geno Atkins and Leon Hall for the season. Those two playmakers being out forced other guys to step up, and Burfict responded. 

He was named the AFC Defensive Player of the Week on Nov. 20 after his 15-tackle performance against the Cleveland Browns in Week 12. 

Back when people were questioning Burfict's future in the NFL, Lewis said "he had no idea" what kind of guy Burfict was, most likely because he hadn't been around him much. 

Things are very different now, as he told USA Today's Jarrett Bell: "He's been such a joy to coach. Where he got the reputation that he has, I don't know where he got it. But he's got charisma, leadership, everything."

His instincts, physicality and athletic ability are what separates him from other NFL linebackers. He's a special talent realizing his potential, and that's a fun thing to watch for any football fan. 

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