The Bengals are once again in a position where the fate of Vontaze Burfict rests in the hands of the league, much like it has for the past three seasons. Burfict faces a four-game suspension for a violation of the NFL's performance-enhancing drug policy, and while he will appeal on the basis of being on prescribed medications for a shoulder injury and concussion at the time, the NFL has historically declined to overturn most PED suspensions.
If the suspension is upheld, Burfict will sit out his third consecutive season opener due to a rules violation. The Bengals are 1-5 in the six games Burfict missed while suspended to open the past two seasons.
The Bengals have stood behind Burfict, 27, even during the toughest times of his career, and they rewarded him with a three-year extension last September. This latest blow likely won't cause them to part ways with him, and there are statistics that point to why. Since 2012, the Bengals have allowed only 4.85 yards per play when Burfict is on the field, according to ESPN Stats & Information. That's the third-best number in the NFL. When he’s off the field, that number jumps to 5.49 yards per play, which ranks 21st.
It would be easy to say Burfict isn't worth the trouble, but when he's available, fit and motivated, he's a Pro Bowl-caliber player. When he's not around, the Bengals don't have anyone in his mold to patrol the field the way he can on his best day. That needs to change.
Even if the Bengals don't want to move on right now, they need to incorporate Burfict's potential absences into their planning, and that should start now.
The Bengals need a fast start after their 0-3 opening put the 2017 season on life support before the first month was over. It's a crucial time for the Bengals, who re-signed coach Marvin Lewis despite protests from a disgruntled fan base eager for change.
While Cincinnati has missed the playoffs two straight seasons, it's not as if the AFC North has gotten worse. The Steelers, division winners the past two seasons, added solid pieces in the draft last year, and even the Browns, who went 0-16 last season, have made strides to improve with a series of aggressive trades this month.
The Bengals have no time to play catch-up in 2018, and certainly not when they're breaking in a new defensive coordinator. Teryl Austin is running the show now, and former defensive coordinator Paul Guenther, who knew Burfict as well as anyone given his days as linebackers coach, isn't around anymore.
It's hard to say whether Austin, who needs to make a good first impression, would show the same patience Guenther did when he waited out Burfict's suspensions and the subsequent weeks Burfict spent getting back into playing shape.
Burfict's troubles began prior to the 2016 season, when it became clear the NFL would not put up with what it deemed repeated safety violations. Burfict received his first three-game suspension only a week after the Bengals’ 2015 season ended with a crazy wild-card loss to Pittsburgh.
It became even more clear when the NFL issued Burfict a surprisingly lengthy five-game suspension for a 2017 preseason hit on Chiefs fullback Anthony Sherman, a penalty later reduced to three games upon appeal.
The Bengals had to be reeling a bit with the current suspension coming less than a year after Burfict's contract extension, but they can't claim to be surprised about possibly losing him for a significant amount of time.
The Bengals protected themselves financially when they gave Burfict his latest extension, guaranteeing only his $3.3 million signing bonus. A $2 million roster bonus will become guaranteed if he's still on the roster at the end of March. Everything else is tied up in base salary, workout bonuses or per-game roster bonuses.
But the team has never protected itself competitively at that position. The Bengals' backup plan for Burfict's absences over the years has been Vincent Rey, who is solid and reliable but not on the same level as a healthy and available Burfict.
That is surprising in light of a comment Lewis made more than once during the past two seasons, indicating that personnel evaluations were necessary to get the Bengals out of their rut.
“We have to look at how we're doing things [and] who we're doing it with,” he said.
They should consider that now in light of the circumstances. Since 2012, the Bengals have drafted five linebackers: Sean Porter in the fourth round of the 2013 draft (he played one game for them); Marquis Flowers in the sixth round in 2014 (he was mostly a special-teams player before being traded to the Patriots last year); Paul Dawson in the third round in 2015 (injuries and attitude led to his departure after only two seasons); Nick Vigil in the third round in 2016; and Jordan Evans in the sixth round in 2017.
Other than Vigil, who became a starter at strongside linebacker, and Evans, who started four games last season and filled in a lot due to injuries, none was a big contributor. Evans flashed potential at times during his rookie season and could improve significantly in Year 2, but his wildly inconsistent play doesn't mean he should be penciled into a spot with strong confidence. The linebacker play was abysmal when Burfict was out with an injury in the Week 14 loss to the Bears last season; Evans, Rey and Kevin Minter ranked 65th, 66th and 67th, respectively, out of 69 linebackers that week, according to Pro Football Focus.
It's not as if the Bengals haven't considered options. They had Alabama linebacker Reuben Foster rated highly during the 2017 draft process, but a lingering shoulder injury likely scared them off. That might have been a blessing in disguise, as Foster has been arrested twice since the end of his rookie season. Foster probably would've been a middle linebacker in the Bengals' system but also could have played the weakside role. Instead, they went with wide receiver John Ross, who played fewer than 20 snaps.
Georgia linebacker Roquan Smith and Virginia Tech linebacker Tremaine Edmunds are potential targets in this year's draft, although they might not be around by the end of the first round; the Bengals are slated to pick 21st overall.
As the 2018 draft approaches, and the prospect of not having Burfict for the first four games lingers, the thought of selecting a linebacker early has to be a consideration.