CINCINNATI (AP) — Linebacker Vontaze Burfict has gone from low-risk investment to the heart of the Bengals defense in only two years.
Cincinnati thinks so much of its Pro Bowl linebacker that it's molding one of the league's best defenses around him in only his third season. And coach Marvin Lewis, who has craved a leader in the style of former Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, thinks he has one in the making.
"I thought Vontaze had those qualities really early on," Lewis said. "He was one of the best players I had seen after his first practice. I told him he was going to be a very good player. He's not disappointed me.
"He has the ingredients of what a great NFL player for a period of time can be. They're innate to him."
Nobody doubted his instincts. It's the other stuff that's held him back.
Burfict was a dazzling linebacker at Arizona State, but let his emotions get in the way. He was repeatedly penalized and disciplined for personal fouls.
A low point was a 2010 game when Burfict head-butted Oregon State quarterback Ryan Katz. Later, he was benched during a game for getting two personal fouls in the first half.
After a poor showing at the 2012 NFL combine, Burfict was tagged as a high risk, an extremely gifted player who wouldn't listen to coaches or keep his emotions under control.
Nobody drafted him. The Bengals signed him as a free agent. By the end of his rookie season, he was a starter making an impact.
Last season, he led the team in tackles 12 times, was honored as the AFC's defensive player of the week for a 15-tackle performance against Cleveland that included a fumble return for a touchdown, and made his first Pro Bowl.
Everyone could see that the defense had a new leader on the field, even though Burfict doesn't consider himself the main one.
"Everybody on this defense thinks of himself as a leader," Burfict said after practice this week. "At the end of the day, I'm just worried about all 11 getting lined up and getting to the ball. I'm not worried about who's watching me, making sure I do it right.
"I'm relentless to the ball and hopefully the others on the field are the same way."
Quarterback Andy Dalton has watched Burfict lead the defense during practices with his passionate play.
"Just the way that he plays speaks for itself, but he's also a guy who's really vocal, who gets guys to play up to his level," Dalton said. "And that's exactly what you want from your starting linebacker."
New defensive coordinator Paul Guenther is working on getting more pressure on the quarterback this season.
Burfict plays outside linebacker in their base defense, inside linebacker in their other formations. He's put a lot of responsibility on Burfict to make the right calls before the snap.
Asked how close the defense is to being built around Burfict, Guenther said, "Pretty close."
Guenther has worked with Burfict to try to harness his emotions rather than letting them get the better of him. Last season, Burfict got six penalties for unnecessary roughness.
And it wasn't only opponents that can rile him. As a rookie, Burfict would get upset with a teammate for a mistake.
"He's so competitive that he would get mad at guys," Guenther said. "I said, 'Look, you can't do that because now that's going to set him off, which is going to set a fire.' I really worked on his leadership abilities and how to go about it in different ways."
Former Bengals linebacker Takeo Spikes watched practice on Thursday as part of his work for a radio show preview of the team's season. Spikes was a leader of the defense during his playing career and thinks that Burfict can grow into the role so long as he accepts the responsibility that comes with it.
"We all knew the troubles he went through early, but now it's him staying straight, having the accountability to not only the coaches but to teammates because they're watching you every day," Spikes said.