The Trials of Vontaze Burfict

We see it every year. A player that drops down draft boards as red flags begin to show their ugly head. Sometimes its some run in with the law or an interview gone wrong where NFL teams suddenly have to reevaluate a player that they covet . Depending on the talent of the player involved, they may slide into the next round (from their projected value) or they may slide a couple rounds. It’s uncommon to drop like Arizona State linebacker Vontaze Burfict though. Burfict didn’t just slide, he plummeted. His draft stock went from a potential 1st round pick to an undrafted free agent in a mere couple months. What’s responsible for his monumental collapse into obscurity? Nothing but himself.

The former high school standout spent 3 years at Arizona State terrorizing opposing offenses and delivering bone-jarring hits before he made the decision to leave school early for the pros following his junior year. The decision was somewhat of a surprise following a disappointing season, but he was still widely considered a top prospect, expected to go as early as 5th and as late as the 2nd round. After all, Burfict was the Pac-10 Defensive Freshman of the Year, and a Freshman All-American in 2009 and then was the Pac-10 Defensive MVP and an All-American in 2010. Despite these well deserved accolades, he did carry his fair share of red flags. He finished his college playing days with 16 personal fouls, so he quickly received the ‘undisciplined’ label. There were also questions about if he was coachable following a season where he had his fair share of frustrations with Arizona State coaches. Still, nobody questioned his potential and even as teams combed through his tape, he still was viewed as a 1st-2nd round player.

Then he showed up at the NFL Combine. That’s when things began to unravel. He showed up at 6’3″, 248 lbs, and simply looked like he didn’t even prepare for it. He looked out of shape and his numbers supported that. He only managed a 5.09 second 40-yard dash as a linebacker… For reference, DT Dontari Poe, a mountain of a man at 6’4″, 346 lbs, ran the 40-yard dash in 4.98 seconds. Heck, there were 4 offensive lineman who ran faster than Burfict despite weighing over 50 lbs more. In position drills Burfict looked equally as horrendous and his stock began to drop. As disappointing as his showing was on the field, the things that sat with NFL executives the most was Burfict’s response when asked about why his final season at Arizona State was so mediocre.

“I played average. I could’ve played better. That’s what hurt me at times,” he then continued to say, “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.”

……

That got him the ‘publicly throws coaches under the bus’ label and now his stock was in a free fall. At this point, there were many in NFL circles who wouldn’t even consider the former Sun Devil following his combine struggles. Then, when things couldn’t get any worse, reports surfaced that he may have also failed a drug test after testing positive for marijuana.

Throw in the “could face suspension time in the future for drug use” label and things weren’t looking good for Burfict.

Leading up to the draft Burfict was essentially dismissed by all NFL teams. While other prospects made their rounds, visiting different teams, Burfict didn’t receive a single invitation to workout for anyone. His pro day came and went and when his showing there didn’t erase the memory of his combine performance, he was suddenly considered a player that wasn’t worth a draft pick. So when the draft finally arrived, he didn’t hear his name called. Nobody even used a 7th rounder on the guy. His free fall finally ended as an undrafted free agent.

That’s when the Cincinnati Bengals made a call to Burfict and signed him. As you might expect, his salary won’t exactly be rivaling that of the 1st or 2nd rounders this year, but he finally has a team. A team that not only could use him, if he pans out, but a team that may be able to maximize Burfict’s ability. Head Coach, Marvin Lewis, and Defensive Coordinator, Mike Zimmer, are coaches who emphasize discipline and both have dealt with other players who had their own share of red flags. Lewis has made it clear that he feels that this decision to sign Burfict is a clear low-risk, high-reward pickup. Cincinnati practically paid nothing, and gave up nothing and, if Burfict gets his head on straight, they may have found a very talented player who can contribute to their team. Lewis believes that he can get Burfict focused after he “struck a cord” with him.

“He’s got a story. I don’t have to believe any of it. It doesn’t matter one way or another to me now. What he does 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 that I can’t coach that he can do… He seems willing to want to change this image people have of him.”

The fact of the matter is that everything that happened during Burfict’s incredible fall doesn’t matter now. He is in a position where he can prove people wrong if he continues to improve physically and mentally. If he becomes more disciplined before, during and after the whistle then he may become a major contributor in the NFL. It seems that Burfict is finally realizing what is really at stake and what he has to do from here.

“Not being picked, going undrafted I have a big chip on my shoulder and I’m ready to hit somebody.”

And that’s how he got the “motivated” label.

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