The Cincinnati Bengals caught more than a little flak earlier this month when the team inked quarterback Andy Dalton to a contract extension that could pay him over $100 million over the next six seasons.
Well, if the Bengals deserved criticism for overspending there, then the team earned an equal helping of praise for its frugality on Wednesday.
Because the Bengals just pulled off the biggest contract coup of the offseason.
LB Vontaze Burfict's extension with Bengals is a four-year, $20 million deal, including $7.6 million this year.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) August 20, 2014
For Burfict, it's the conclusion of a remarkable turnaround.
Back in 2012, Burfict entered his junior season at Arizona State as one of the nation's most highly regarded linebackers and a potential first-round pick.
However, a disappointing season gave way to a disastrous draft season and catastrophic combine. By the time the 2013 NFL draft rolled around, this is what Nolan Nawrocki of Pro Football Weekly had to say about Burfict:
Vastly overhyped, marginal football player who already has been removed from many draft boards and easily could go undrafted after a poor Combine showing and because of the negative energy he can bring to a locker room. Overcame a rough upbringing to beat the odds in college but needs to mature mightily to survive in the pros and would benefit highly from a strong veteran presence who can stick him in his place.
Nawrocki's penchant for hyperbole aside, you get the gist, and sure enough Burfict didn't hear his name called in New York.
From the moment Burfict signed a free-agent deal with the Bengals, it's been a different story.
Burfict appeared to buy into then-defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer's no-nonsense coaching style from day one. Not a peep was heard from Burfict the headcase, while Burfict the difference-maker began making regular appearances on the field.
As then-linebackers coach (and current Bengals defensive coordinator) Paul Guenther told Paul Daugherty of the Chillicothe Gazette, it didn't take long for the team's staff to realize it had a special player on its hands: "He just retains things. Not many rookies can come to the sideline and tell you what just happened. Usually they're all panicky. This guy told you exactly what happened, and he was almost always right. Early on, I knew he could handle a lot of information, and process it."
By the third game of Burfict's NFL career, he was starting. By the end of his second season, he was the league's leading tackler, a Pro Bowler and the fourth-ranked 4-3 outside linebacker in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Now, Burfict's rebound is being rewarded. As ESPN's Andrew Brandt points out, in a way it was beneficial Burfict plummeted in the draft two years ago:
As an undrafted player, Burfict was not required to wait three years for a renegotiation. In that sense, better off not drafted.— Andrew Brandt (@adbrandt) August 20, 2014
The contract is also a massive win for the Bengals, and not just because with Dalton and Burfict now locked up for the long term, the team can turn its attention to wide receiver A.J. Green.
|Jerod Mayo||NE||$9.7 million|
|Lance Briggs||CHI||$7 million|
|Chad Greenway||MIN||$6.3 million|
|Von Miller||DEN||$5.3 million|
|Philip Wheeler||MIA||$5.2 million|
|Vontaze Burfict||CIN||$5 million|
Per Over the Cap
As you can see, there are currently five 4-3 outside linebackers in the NFL who make more per season in average salary than Burfict will on his new deal.
Lance Briggs of the Chicago Bears and Chad Greenway of the Minnesota Vikings have had solid NFL careers, but both are on the wrong side of 30. Philip Wheeler was among the worst 4-3 OLBs in the NFL, per PFF, last year and is wildly overpaid.
Who is the best 4-3 OLB in the NFL?
An argument can be made that Von Miller of the Denver Broncos and Jerod Mayo of the New England Patriots are at least Burfict's equals as players, but both are coming off major injuries and Mayo makes nearly twice as much money.
When it comes to bang for your salary-cap buck, deals don't get any better than Burfict's.
If there's a downside to the deal for the Bengals, it's that at only four seasons, Burfict will still be a relatively young player when he next hits free agency. If he continues to play at his current level, Mayo's contract could be the starting point for talks on Burfict's next contract.
Still, that was all but certainly at least partly by design. Burfict likely agreed to sacrifice some money now in the interest of a shorter term (and earlier shot at his next payday), affording the Bengals a measure of "headcase insurance."
In any event, that's a problem for another day. Wednesday is a day for celebration in southern Ohio.
Both for Burfict, who gets the financial windfall that completes his tale of redemption, and for the Bengals...
Who just bought a Camaro for the price of a Honda Civic.
Gary Davenport is an NFL Analyst at Bleacher Report and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association and the Pro Football Writers of America. You can follow Gary on Twitter @IDPManor.