Vontaze BurfictAfter the 2011 season, the Cincinnati Bengals finished with one of the top defenses in the NFL, mainly due to a defensive line that featured emerging stars Geno Atkins, who was honored with a Pro Bowl appearance, and Carlos Dunlap. While they created plenty of pressure, the linebacking core was largely average except the serendipitous performance of free agent signing Thomas Howard with 70 tackles and two forced fumbles from the Will linebacker spot.

Although many questions marks still exist within the linebacker group, the position was ignored during the draft until the post-draft scramble to sign the cream of what’s left. By grabbing an extremely raw talent with some temperament question marks, the Bengals took a shot on what could perhaps become a landmark value. And, speaking of linebackers with temper problems, does anyone remember Ray Lewis’s early-career peccadilloes? Today’s subject, unlike one of the all-time greats, has avoided being involved with any stabbing incidents.

Vontaze Burfict was perhaps the biggest lightning rod for criticism during the 2012 draft process, although it was far from unreasonable. It begins with his draft combine performance and subsequent interviews. Although everyone knows that the activities measured at the NFL combine are not exactly the strongest indicator of performance on the field - in fact, I have yet to see any player take off his pads, run 40 yards in a straight line, go jump as high as he can to slap pivoting bars connected to a pole, then lift the weight equivalent of a running back as many times as he can - the point of all of this is to look beyond only the measurables.

Teams want to see a player who cares enough to prepare to arrive in peak physical condition, eschewing the typical post-graduation party to go to a training facility and work on semi-related-to-football skills. Although probably not training with a personal DJ like on Cam Newton’s Under Armor commercial the NFL Network plays on every commercial break all day. Burfict showed everyone an abomination of a 40 time of 5.09 and elected to skip the bench press, which raised more flags than a Independence Day in Washington D.C. In his defense, however, he did slim down to 248 pounds after playing the 2011 season at 260.

When a player does show that he has come to the combine unprepared, teams will ramp up the next step of the process, which are the individual interviews. By refusing to participate in the cone drills and the bench press, finishing last and next to last in the linebacker group during the vertical and broad jumps, to running a 40 that was slower than mammoth nose tackle Dontari Poe’s, it is safe to say Burfict could only hope to salvage the week with sparkling interviews. From all indications, Burfict crashed and burned during this step.

Of course, there are always stories leaked of teams going to outright ridiculous measures to rattle the cages during these interviews: case in point,Jeff Ireland asking Dez Bryant whether or not his mother was a prostitute, but with the constant scrutiny and close monitoring of players today there is a method to this particular madness. One can hardly blame the process for Burfict’s insinuation to the media that his senior-season decline was due to his coaching staff.

After failing at the combine, a player can always look to the salvation of his pro day. He can show himself off in the friendly confines of his own campus surrounded by his teammates and coaches. There will have been enough time to show drastic improvement, proving that the combine was an aberration. His pro day was no better for Burfict, at which he only managed 16 reps on the bench press, less than kicker David Buehler managed during his NFL Combine. In Burfict’s defense, with 25 reps Buehler also out benched Rey Maulaluga, the Bengals’ much-hyped middle linebacker who has never lived up to his potential.

 Cincy’s Rey-Rey (as opposed to Baltimore’s Ray-Ray) has never lived up to the lofty expectations of the Bengals’ coaching staff, drawing an annual public admonition of the USC product by defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer. This, along with multiple off-field incidents, has led Cincinnati to invest a no-risk high-reward flier on Burfict as an undrafted free agent. With the offseason rosters being expanded to 90 players, it makes complete sense to invest some time in possibly developing the team’s middle linebacker of the future.

Burfict may need to improve his focus and temper on the field, with personal foul penalties being a major red flag, this can be coached, and players often times mature after a year on the practice squad or riding the pine. It is duly noted that Marvin Lewis coached Ray Lewis during his prime years and taught him to focus his rage between the sidelines within the confines of the rules. If it doesn’t work out, then the signing is no different than any team signing a fourth quarterback as a camp arm. They might not be part of the future plans, but if an undrafted signing comes out during the preseason and has a monster year, then there’s your diamond in the rough.

Although Burfict’s total amount of tackles may have decreased in 2011, during his celebrated 2010 season Burfict recorded no sacks. In 2011 he recorded five, along with recording his first career interception. It could be argued that Burfict’s playmaking increased in 2011 and he mainly suffered from the same over-scrutiny that highly regarded returning seniors suffer. Granted, his game does have flaws, but those flaws always existed. Burfict is exactly what he has always been, and, with the special interest that Marvin Lewis showed in Burfict throughout the draft process, one has to defer to the coordinator of the legendary 2000 Ravens defense. Even if he turns out to be more Peter Boulware than Ray Lewis, Cincinnati fans will be more than happy with his development.