Thomas Howard's season-ending ACL injury during practice Thursday has opened the door at starting weak-side linebacker for the Cincinnati Bengals.
You won't even guess who has reportedly walked through that door to claim the starting job for the Bengals' Week 2 matchup with the Cleveland Browns.
According to ESPN's Alyssa Roenigk, undrafted free agent Vontaze Burfict will get the start in Howard's place Sunday.
With starting outside LB Thomas Howard out with an ACL tear, @king55tez is the new starter in Cincy. Quite a climb after quite a draft dive.— Alyssa Roenigk (@ESPN_Alyssa) September 14, 2012
Quite a "draft dive" would be an understatement for Burfict, who went undrafted after many projected him to be a sure-fire first-round pick in April's NFL draft.
In fact, Bleacher Report's own Matt Miller compared Burfict to San Francisco 49ers All-Pro linebacker Patrick Willis during the pre-draft process. In his film study, Miller opined that Burfict was the better player coming out of Arizona State than Willis was coming out of Ole Miss in 2007
Willis went in the first round; however, the issues started piling up for the enigmatic Burfict.
Seventeen personal foul penalties at Arizona State highlighted Burfict's attitude issues. DraftInsider.net's Tony Pauline reported that Burfict's decision to leave for the NFL was probably eligibility-related.
Maturity again in question.
At the NFL Combine, Burfict ran 5.09 seconds in the 40-yard dash—slower than most of the defensive and offensive linemen in Indianapolis.
The final nail was a positive drug test at the combine, first reported by FOX Sports' Jay Glazer.
An undisciplined, immature, slow and potentially trouble-causing linebacker equaled 253 picks coming and going without Burfict hearing his named called.
Despite the issues, Burfict eventually got his chance when the Bengals signed him following the draft. But the consensus was that Burfict would need to fight and claw to even get on an NFL 53-man roster for the 2012 season.
To his credit, Burfict fought and clawed.
He lost 15 pounds. At the Bengals' organized team activities, he stood out from the pack. He was aggressive once he got to training camp, and he picked off Tim Tebow during the preseason.
By early September, Burfict had rightfully earned a spot on an NFL roster.
Now just a week into the season, Burfict finds himself starting for a 2011 playoff team.
To be completely fair, Joe Reedy of the Cincinnati Enquirer reported earlier that the Bengals would use a mix of three guys—Burfict, Dan Skuta and Vincent Rey—at Howard's old spot.
OK, let me try this again -- WLB will be a mixture of Burfict, Skuta and Vinny Rey. Depends on down and situation— Joe Reedy (@joereedy) September 14, 2012
Of the three, however, it's clear Burfict has the highest ceiling. And while he'll be playing somewhat out of position at weak-side linebacker, there's enough natural athleticism (despite the combine numbers) to think the transition wouldn't be too much for Burfict overcome.
Opportunity, which Burfict has been handed in Cincinnati, is only one part of the equation. Now he has to grasp the chance just like he did when his name was just one of many undrafted free agents hoping for one team to give them an opportunity to make a roster.
Burfict's new opportunity begins Sunday.
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