Let me start of by saying that I was one of Vontaze Burfict’s biggest supporters. I was drawn in by the highlight reels from his time at Arizona State University that showcased some of the best linebacker play in the entire country: the closing speed, the violence, the big hits, and the intensity. Then the Combine happened and those visions of what could have been a wonderful pairing between the Baltimore Ravens and Burfict started to vanish.
Years have passed now since Ray Lewis was "supposed" to have finished his storied career, and even though many doubt his ability to remain among the best each off-season, he keeps proving everyone wrong. Though it’s ridiculous to assume that the Ravens could simply find a replacement for Lewis, if anyone seemed to fit the bill as Lewis’ heir apparent, it was Burfict. The truth of the matter though is that no one knows how much longer Lewis will continue to play for the Ravens, but like everyone else before him, his time on the field will come to an end sooner or later. Unfortunately however, you don’t just replace Hall of Fame caliber players like Lewis, you just can’t, and believing that you can will only set yourself up for a major disappointment.
In reality, a Burfict-type player seems like the most likely solution to losing a one-of-a-kind player like Lewis, but that just isn’t going to happen, and especially not now after Burfict seemingly did everything in his power to make sure that teams avoided him. I’ve been mulling this over for a little while now, and I would like to propose something to Ravens nation, a theory on the Lewis/Burfict comparisons: I think fans, me included, have been bracing themselves for Lewis’ eventual retirement, and Burfict just a few days, weeks, months ago seemed to be the best chance we had at hanging on to the glory days of Ray Lewis long after he retires, and the thought that Bufirct could live up to Lewis’ high standards was comforting. We wanted Burfict to be "that guy" so badly, when now, in hind-sight, it doesn’t seem like that would’ve ever happened anyways.
(After the "Jump", see a breakdown of how Burfict performed at the Combine, how his performance could affect his draft stock, and what the Ravens’ other options at LB could be in the 2012 NFL Draft.)
Perhaps the most linked or mocked player to be picked by the Ravens in this years’ draft was Vontaze Burfict. It made sense to most everyone because Burfict had all of the physical tools to become a great linebacker in the NFL and could also have been mentored by arguably the greatest linebacker to ever play the game in Ray Lewis. Boy can things change fast, or slow, depending on what the average 40 yard-dash-time is for linebackers these days. There’s a better joke in there somewhere! Anyways, here’s how Burfict performed at the scouting combine:
Height/Weight: 6-1 248 lbs.
40 yard dash (unofficial times): 4.93 and 5.10 seconds
Bench Press: Did not participate.
Vertical Leap: 30 inches (second worst among all linebackers)
Broad Jump: 104 inches (worst among all linebackers)
20 yard shuttle/60 yard shuttle: Did not participate.
While Burfict did show up a bit more slim from his reported 260 lbs. playing weight from this past season, the extra lightness didn’t prove to be enough to make him any quicker on his feet. When you’re getting beat in the 40 yard dash by defensive tackles that are 100 lbs. or more than you are, something is wrong. Surely his measurable’s will cause teams to question Burfict’s abilities and how he’ll transition to the NFL, but perhaps the most damning evidence of Burfict’s character flaws came when he was giving an interview at the combine and proceeded to throw his former Arizona State coaches under the bus:
"I could’ve played better. That’s what hurt me at times. The coaches kind of messed me up. I didn’t know if I would start a game or be benched. It hurt me, but I tried to fight through it."
For a guy with as many character concerns and red flags as Burfict has, he needed to have an absolutely stellar combine performance, both physically and mentally, in order to be welcomed back into the good graces of teams that had their sights set on him. Burfict, once an almost guaranteed 1st round pick, did everything in his power to drive teams away by performing poorly both on the field and in front of the cameras.
So, with Burfict’s stock falling by the minute, how should the Ravens move forward if they still wish to find a linebacker to be mentored by Ray Lewis and potentially take over when Lewis moves on from football? There are still several promising linebackers that are due to be drafted in the top rounds of the 2012 draft that could join the Ravens to become defensive stars, such as Alabama’s, D’onta Hightower.
D’onta Hightower: The Alabama product has been widely considered to be a late-1st to early-2nd round pick. With a solid combine in the books for Hightower, he may have solidified himself as a sure 1st rounder. Coming in at 6-2 265 lbs., Hightower is a thumper against the run as well as a good pass-rusher with some questions surrounding his ability in coverage which has hurt his stock slightly, though it should be noted that Hightower intends to shed additional weight which should help his coverage abilities. Hightower also ran a 4.68 40-yard dash which is hugely impressive given his immense size. His stats this season were as follows: 85 tackles (11 for a loss), four sacks, and one interception. He also acts the part of a professional by saying all the right things in interviews:
Hightower on the topic of Ray Lewis: "Growing up, guys that you watched when you’re 15 and you’re still in middle school and you want to be like this guy, actually being on the field with those guys would be a dream come true."
While not as naturally gifted as Burfict, Hightower makes up for that with hard work, dedication, and should become an excellent linebacker at the next level.
The Ravens will never be able to replace Ray Lewis, it’s simply impossible to replace one of the all-time greats. Although the Ravens most likely won’t find the next "Lewis" in this year’s draft, they do have a need at linebacker with Jarret Johnson and Jameel McClain becoming unrestricted free agents in a matter of weeks. Though Burfict may still have it in him to be great, he will first have to overcome himself and then prove to everyone else that he’s ready to get to work, and I’m just not sure that the Ravens, or any other team, will be willing to spend a high pick on someone who looks to be a bit of a project. So, should the Ravens take the risk with Burfict or take the safe road with another linebacker?