"I told [owner] Mike Brown, 'I don't mean to overstate this, but he's special,'" Lewis said Wednesday, retelling a conversation he and Brown had in May 2012. "He reminds me of another guy I've coached."
The last time Lewis so quickly recognized similar talent in a young linebacker was 1996, when he was beginning his first season as the Baltimore Ravens' defensive coordinator. That year, the second overall pick of the draft arrived to Ravens camp showing Lewis glimpses of the long-term potential he and other Ravens coaches believed he possessed. It was Ray Lewis.
While Burfict, named last week to his first Pro Bowl, is only in the second year of his career, current Bengals coach Marvin Lewis believes he has a future every bit as bright as Ray Lewis. After retiring last year, Ray Lewis, who currently serves as an analyst for ESPN, likely will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer when eligible.
One reason Marvin Lewis would agree with that sentiment has to do with a trait that he shares with Burfict. It's one that has caused Marvin Lewis to develop a deep respect and admiration for the pair. The way the coach sees it, both linebackers are serious competitors who have trouble with complacency. Even when others around them may think the two have given maximum effort and are routinely making seemingly impossible plays look easy, both actually aren't completely happy.
Ray Lewis was always his harshest critic, Marvin Lewis said. Burfict, he added, acts much the same way now.
"They're not full of themselves," Marvin Lewis said. "It's all about, 'How do I get better? How do I help the team win?' And that's a common thread both players have."
Marvin Lewis told an example about how when Ray Lewis was beginning to get picked for Pro Bowls that he told him to remain humble.
"Don't go to the Pro Bowl and act like you're hot stuff," Marvin Lewis said. "Go there and learn. You suck the knowledge out of the guys and then you come back and help us get better. He did that."
Ray Lewis was selected to 13 Pro Bowls, was named a two-time defensive player of the year and was the MVP of Super Bowl XXXV. Those accolades helped make the career Raven one of the league's most popular players, and one who current players, like Burfict, looked up to when they were younger.
Burfict barely flinched Wednesday when asked which linebacker he most tried to emulate from the time he started playing the position in high school.
"Ray," Burfict said. "It was his tenacity, his defense, his leadership, his recklessness when he got to the ball, the way he talked smack," Burfict said.
The Bengals' "Will" linebacker said he and Ray Lewis have communicated about his future. The two spoke after last year's regular-season finale between the Bengals and Ravens, and they talked following Cincinnati's Monday night win over Pittsburgh earlier this season.
"He told me to keep it going and that he's watching me and that I'm a vocal leader on the defense, and if I keep that going, it's a big thing for our defense," Burfict said.
Burfict led the NFL in tackles this regular season with 171. The most tackles Lewis was credited with having was the 183 that came in his second season in the league.
While Ray Lewis was drafted high, Burfict wasn't claimed at all during the seven rounds of the 2012 draft. Signed by the Bengals following the draft, Burfict became a steal. His stock had decreased entering the draft that year after a poor showing at the NFL scouting combine and chatter surfaced about behavior problems and apparent lack of discipline while at Arizona State. When Marvin Lewis first met Burfict, though, he saw someone different.
"I can remember meeting with him out in Tempe, [Ariz.], and sitting in P.F. Chang's, and how impressed I was with him that day," Marvin Lewis said. "So he's done it. I'm proud for him of what he's done and I don't take any credit away from what he has done. He has done the things I asked him to do from the very first time. That's important."
What specifically impressed him?
"You knew he had the charisma of a leader, he had the ability of a leader and he waited his turn," Marvin Lewis said. "He's evolved into this and he didn't step on anyone's toes doing it. He just evolved into it with his own natural abilities and what he is as a person and a player."