The Bengals raised some eyebrows when they popped the "undrafted rookie free agent" tag on linebacker Vontaze Burfict. Fitting, in this case, is a line from the popular song "Thrift Shop" by Macklemore: "One man's trash, that's another man's come-up."
The Bengals came up big and received great value from Burfict, who started 14 games and led the team with 127 tackles last season. Other teams now are probably wishing they would have spent the 20 dollars in their pockets.
"I plan to be better than I was last season," Burfict said after a recent training camp practice. "All I have to do is keep listening to the coaches and everything will fall into place. My goal this year is to lead the team further in the playoffs and hopefully a Super Bowl. It's important for me to be more productive than last year."
No one questioned Burfict's talent coming out of Arizona State, but he went undrafted due to some perceived negatives regarding his character on and off the field.
It took Bengals coach Marvin Lewis and his staff to see past the red flags and bring out the football player in him.
"There is a lot of trust and respect that goes back and forth between Vontaze and the coaches," said Chuck Price, Burfict's agent. "Linebacker coach (Paul) Guenther, from a mentoring standpoint, was critical in keeping him on a growth cycle and not allowing him to be anything but humble. I believe he is learning day-by-day how to become a great pro."
Price said Burfict's direct communication with Lewis is what sold him on coming to play for Cincinnati. He added that the player may have been a little volatile on the field in the past, but has nothing to be ashamed of off the field.
"We knew Vontaze had some playing ability when he came here," Guenther said. "The nice thing about it is he came here with no bad habits. The bad habits he had in college we got rid of through coaching. He's a real smart kid that studies hard and understands the game. He picked up the defense real fast last year.
"The improvement from last year to this year has been tremendous. He's really become the leader of our defense."
Guenther went on to say that Burfict is like a son to him and was a young man in need of some direction. He said the player was disappointed for not being drafted and had a chip on his shoulder.
Maybe the most disheartening thing for Burfict during the draft process was having so-called experts piling on with other naysayers without having any real knowledge of him.
"It's not about proving the doubters wrong," Burfict said. "It's a matter of showing up and being accountable to my teammates. At the end of the day, it's not about what people think but more so what I can do for my team and make them better."
The 6-foot-1, 255-pound Burfict had an immediate impact on defense for the Bengals as a rookie. He plays with passion and does well against the run or pass. He's currently holding down the weakside linebacker position but will shift to middle in nickel packages. Burfict has been known to talk a little trash on the field, setting the mood for his ferocious play. The linebacker said he doesn't mean any harm and is the first to shake an opponent's hand afterward. It's just part of his game.
The Bengals have a dangerous linebacking corp with some depth in Burfict, Rey Maualuga and newly acquired James Harrison.
"We all have our role on the team and fill it pretty good," Burfict said. "We're excited for the season because we all make each other better. I watch what Rey and James do on the field and try to perfect that in my own way. They're great linebackers and I watch them on film every day. I compare myself to them and see how I can get better by watching them.
"We're ready to get after people and I think our defense will be fun to watch."