The Cincinnati Bengals announced the signing of several undrafted college free agents the day after the conclusion of the 2012 NFL Draft. Among those signed are Colorado QB Tyler Hansen, West Virginia DE Julian Miller, UCLA S Tony Dye, Bowling Green OL Ben Bojicic, Indiana State WR Justin Hilton, Western Kentucky CB Derrius Brooks and Colorado RB Rodney Stewart.
One player signed, however, has drawn particular attention: Arizona State LB Vontaze Burfict.
Burfict was at one time a "can't miss" first round prospect. Then came an off the field skirmish in which he beat up a teammate and an alleged failed drug test at the NFL Combine. With the Bengals signing Burfict, who went undrafted, the predictable chorus of critics citing the Bengals history with character-challenged players began to sing.
Burfict signifies a changing of the Bengals' strategy with these types of players, however.
There's no question in the past that Mike Brown and Marvin Lewis devoted too many draft choices to players with questionable character and got burned in the process. The list of players includes LB Odell Thurman, the late WR Chris Henry, AJ Nicholson and others. Cincinnati's reputation for being an NFL half-way house was well-deserved.
In recent years, the Bengals have stayed away from such risks, at least in the draft. They took a flyer on Adam Jones whose off the field problems had become legendary, but did so by claiming him off waivers. For the most part, Jones had kept his nose clean, so much so that the Bengals rewarded him by re-signing him this past off season.
By no longer drafting these players, Cincinnati reduces their commitment as well as their risk. Burfict, like the other undrafted free agents, has a league minimum salary that he won't even begin to accumulate until the first week of the season, provided he makes the team. Until then, he and the other free agents live off per deim money that allows for housing and meals. If Burfict messes up, even once, the Bengals can cut him loose and suffer no ill effects on their salary cap and have not lost out on any opportunity costs because he was an undrafted player. In short, even if Burfict decides to hold up a bank tomorrow, it costs the Bengals nothing. If, however, Marvin Lewis and his staff are able to reign in the "meanest man in college football," they may have found a very special talent.
By all accounts, Burfict is a cross between Dick Butkus and Ray Lewis. Coaches and players across the college football landscape tell stories of Burfict's legendary athleticism and the viciousness of his hits. Oregon State coach Mike Riley told Matt Hayes of The Sporting News:
"I know one thing. Somebody is taking a blow every play (Burfict) is on the field."
One NFL scout called Burfict, “what you get after you kick Ray Lewis’ dog.”
To Burfict's credit, the vast majority of his "issues" are on the field. His overzealous play caused him to draw the attention of officials. For all of his aggression, there's no question that much of the time he played without discipline. The incident with his teammate is the only known off the field issue. By contrast, Janoris Jenkins and others were drafted this weekend despite lengthy criminal records.
Vontaze Burfict could be the player that makes Bengals fans forget about Odell Thurman. On one hand, he may be more of 'loose cannon" than Thurman ever was. On the other, he may be twice the football player Thurman, the 2005 Defensive Rookie of the Year, ever dreamed of being.
Best of all, the Bengals and their fans get to find out which one with very minimal risk involved.