Updated Jan 4, 2013 - 5:43 pm
Vontaze Burfict is making the most of his opportunity with the Cincinnati Bengals
During his final season in Tempe, the tempestuous linebacker was expected to anchor the Sun Devils defense, but instead the native of Corona, Calif. made far more headlines off the field than on it.
Burfict finished his junior campaign with 69 total tackles, seven tackles for a loss and five sacks, but heading into the 2012 NFL Draft he was labeled as a locker room cancer because of numerous run-ins he had with former teammates and coaches.
While there was no denying Burfict had first-round talent on the field, his work ethic (ran a rather slow 4.93 and 5.10 40-yard dash at the Combine), questionable passion for the game (failed a pre-draft drug test) and volatile nature scared every general manager in the league last April, as the 2010 Sporting News All-American went undrafted.
Although character concerns kept the linebacker from hearing his name called by Roger Goodell, owner Mike Brown and head coach Marvin Lewis of the Cincinnati Bengals took a flyer on the mercurial linebacker and signed him less than a week after the draft.
All Burfict has done since is prove his doubters wrong, while rewarding the Bengals' faith in his on-field abilities.
Most importantly, he's been a model teammate in Cincinnati.
In 16 regular season games, Burfict ranked third among rookies in tackles (129). The two players in front of him, Luke Kuechly (Panthers) and Bobby Wagner (Seahawks), were each taken in the first two rounds of the draft.
As John McTigue of ESPN Stats & Information noted Thursday, Burfict's impact on the Bengals defense has been unmatched in 2012. The former ASU star led Cincinnati in tackles during his rookie season, despite playing in 134 less snaps then fellow linebacker Rey Mauluga.
In addition, Burfict led the Bengals in tackles for a loss (7.5) and recorded the second-most single-game tackles (18 in Week 17 against the Baltimore Ravens) by any player in the league this season.
Burfict's presence on field made a notable difference for the Bengals this season. When Burfict was on field, the Bengals defense allowed 2.4 yards fewer per play compared to when he was off the field.
How big of an impact was that? There were 230 players this season who were on field for at least 500 plays and off the field for 100-or-more plays. In that sample, no player's team took a bigger hit when going off field than the Bengals did with Burfict.
For his efforts, Burfict has started every game since Week 3, and will have a chance to add to that streak Saturday when the Bengals travel to Houston in a rematch of last year's AFC Wild Card contest.