Vontaze Burfict is a cautionary combine tale

CINCINNATI -- You are going to hear the following phrases a lot this week and next: "great burst," "explosive legs," "powerful hip turn," "downhill runner," "could be a great professional football player."

Beware of what you hear. Proceed with caution when reading or watching TV.

By May, it might all mean nothing.

Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict knows that fact all too well.

On Friday, the annual hyperbole fest known as the NFL combine begins in Indianapolis, where more than 300 draft prospects will showcase their skills in a week of drills that will test how well their talents might translate to the sport's highest level. Interviews with media, scouts and front office officials also will be on tap for the former all-conference stars and small-college heroes who are hoping an NFL franchise goes out on a limb and drafts them later this spring.

You'll read from me and countless others these next few days about how great particular players' strengths are, and how damaging their various weaknesses could be. It's the nature of this time of year. No matter how hard one tries to avoid it, it's easy to get wrapped up in hyping how fluidly a receiver runs his routes, while also admonishing him for dropping multiple passes. During an event predicated on players demonstrating as close to perfect performances as possible, it's easy to nit-pick the bad and overstate the good.

For that reason, be careful with what you read and hear, and remember Burfict.

Two years ago, Burfict arrived at the combine with a dark cloud hanging over his head. The Arizona State product came heavy and out of shape. Scouts were looking for any little tell-tale sign that would suggest he was as lazy as many had believed. Owners and general managers were curious as to why they had mostly heard about discipline issues with him. They wanted to get a gauge as to why he and his college coach apparently had friction.

They must not have gotten the answers they needed in order to draft him. Burfict, once deemed one of the top defensive prospects in his draft class, slipped completely out of it. Not long after the selection process was over, though, the Bengals came calling. He was signed as an undrafted free agent.

Burfict is currently entering the final year of a three-year deal earning the league minimum. While making less than $500,000 during the 2013 season, Burfict, in his second year, earned his first Pro Bowl selection and led the league in tackles by setting a franchise record with 171. His first year wasn't too bad, either. As a rookie, he had 127 tackles after coming in and playing due to early-season injuries above him.

Last week, ESPN's Tedy Bruschi and Jim Basquil talked about Burfict's road to redemption in this ESPN.com video. Even though Bruschi still has some concerns about Burfict's on-field maturity -- he was fined three times for $52,000 in 2013, and was penalized 13 times for 150 yards -- he still applauds him for having completely changed the narrative that existed before he was signed in 2012.

"It didn't look good for Vontaze Burfict coming out of Arizona State. You didn't know if he was going to be able to overcome some of those issues, those character problems," Bruschi said. "But Marvin Lewis really showed that he had faith in him and now you have a linebacker that looks like hes going to solidify your defense for years to come."

After it was announced in late December that he made the Pro Bowl roster, Burfict spoke fondly about the many phone calls he shared with Lewis between his Pro Day at Arizona State and the draft.

"He was pretty much the only person who kept reaching out and who kept talking to me and who kept me motivated and telling me to keep my head up and stuff like that," Burfict said.

It was at Burfict's pro day -- after the combine -- when Lewis first got to know the controversial linebacker. During a dinner at a P.F. Chang's in Tempe, Ariz., he first realized how much Burfict reminded him of Ray Lewis, the soon-to-be Hall of Fame former Baltimore Ravens linebacker who now serves as an analyst for ESPN. Their mannerisms were the same, their humility was similar and their respect for the position was comparable, Marvin Lewis said.

"I told [owner] Mike Brown, 'I don't mean to overstate this, but he's special,'" Marvin Lewis said. "He reminds me of another guy I've coached. ... They're not full of themselves. It's all about, 'How do I get better? How do I help the team win?'"

Burfict isn't the only undrafted free agent who has become a recent Bengals star. Backup linebacker and longtime special teams standout Vincent Rey emerged as a viable defender in 2013 after he was claimed in undrafted in 2010. Rey became even more of a fan favorite for the way he helped carry the defense when Rey Maualuga went down with a knee injury around midseason. Jayson DiManche and Andrew Hawkins are other undrafted players of note who have become possible key pieces to the Bengals' 2014 season. Neither were even invited to the combine their respective years.

As much as first-round guys like Leon Hall and A.J. Green and Tyler Eifert have formed a significant part of the Bengals' backbone, blue collar players like Burfict, Rey, DiManche and Hawkins have, too.

So as you go through this week of half-truths and half-exaggerations, keep in mind players like them. Don't believe all of the hype because as great as some prospects might seem this week, they may not end up having the same impact in September as the guy who didn't show up at the combine, or the one who was a flop during it.