The Bengals moved on from one of their most compelling figures ever Monday afternoon when they terminated the contract of erstwhile Pro Bowl linebacker Vontaze Burfict, who went from a $1,000 gamble as an undrafted free agent to two long-term deals totaling about $50 million during seven seasons in Cincinnati.
The first major roster move of the Zac Taylor Era made it a day of stark contrast at Paul Brown Stadium that began when the Bengals signed tight end Tyler Eifert to a one-year deal in the morning, bookending two of the biggest what-ifs of the Green-Dalton Era. Both Burfict and Eifert, who turn 29 within 16 days of each other in September, have struggled to stay on the field after their break-through Pro Bowl seasons.
For the instinctive, savvy Burfict, that was in his second season back in 2013 when he led the NFL in tackles while helping lead the Bengals to the AFC North title and the No. 3 defensive ranking in the league. For the rangy, wide receiver-ish Eifert, that was back in 2015, when he caught 13 touchdown passes in 13 games helping lead the Bengals to an 8-0 start on the way to their best record ever at 12-4.
But suspension and injuries ranging from a series of concussions to a knee problem that required dicey micro fracture surgery limited Burfict to 37 of the 80 games since. Eifert has suffered an unreal spate of health problems that he calls "freak," since that 2015 Pro Bowl he tore ankle tendons, appearing in 14 of the 48 games since that day in Honolulu.
"As we continue to build our roster for the 2019 season, we felt it best to give both the team and Vontaze a fresh start," said Taylor in a news release. "Vontaze has been a good player here — the team appreciates that, and I know a lot of fans appreciate that — but our focus is on the future. Our goal is to build a successful team for the upcoming season, and we felt that making this change now was best for everyone."
The Burfict move is Taylor's first foray into fixing the biggest problem on defense, a linebackers corps bit by injury the last two seasons. They'll line up with Preston Brown in the middle and Nick Vigil at SAM, but they need a WILL and some backups. With 11 draft picks at least two figure to be linebackers and they've been perusing the free-agent market for young guys that can run. They've got two potential WILL backers from the last two drafts that can move in 2018 third-rounder Malik Jefferson and 2017 sixth-rounder Jordan Evans, players they hope can become more consistent.
When healthy, Burfict was the defense's leader, emotionally and as the signal-caller. The heirs to that role are Preston Brown and safeties Shawn Williams and Jessie Bates.
Burfict may have played the greatest game ever by a Bengals linebacker in the 2015 Wild Card Game against Pittsburgh when he appeared to put the Bengals in the postseason for the first time in two decades on his interception with 1:32 left and the Steelers down, 16-15.
But the defense had to go back on the field nine seconds later after running back Jeremy Hill's fumble, setting up the most controversial play of Burfict's controversial career. When he hit wide receiver Antonio Brown going over the middle, he was flagged for hitting a defenseless receiver and it put the Steelers in winning field goal range. He was also fined and suspended for the play, beginning a skein that saw him begin three of the next four seasons on NFL suspension, twice for violating the player safety code in a running battle with the league office that has cost him an estimated $4 million in fines and suspensions.
Eifert's only foe has been the training room. Even before 2015 his career was plagued. Nine snaps into the 2014 opener he suffered a grotesque and season-ending dislocated elbow. But for the second year in a row Monday the Bengals signed him to a one-year deal with incentives. While Burfict struggled last season to get acclimated after missing the first four games for violations of the PEDs policy before a seventh concussion ended his season after just seven games, Eifert helped the Bengals offense get off to a 3-1 start before he badly dislocated his ankle and ended his season in the fourth game.
After watching the Bengals offense win those three games with at least 34 points averaging 370 yards, Taylor and the new staff felt his presence was worth another one-year shot. So did Eifert, who admitted in Monday's conference call with the Cincinnati media he was leaning to leaving until free agency dawned last week and he started to mull some offers.
"I enjoy it here. I enjoy the guys in the locker room. I enjoy the city," Eifert said. "That became more of an emphasis to try and stay. I had more opportunity (than last year to leave). It was a little slow going. I guess that's understandable with the way the injuries have been."
When Bengals radio analyst Dave Lapham asked him if the football gods were finally with him for a full season, Eifert could only say, "I've been saying that for three years now. I would think so. That's one thing going for me. I haven't had nagging (pulled) hamstring and groins. I've had some freak injuries."
It has made him an expert on the ankle. He hurt the other one last season, but he knows all the parts as walked through how they re-built the foot.
"They put my ankle back in on the field. That wasn't much fun, but they were able to do the surgery the next day instead of that night," Eifert said. "They repaired the deltoid ligament. They put in a tight rope, which is pretty standard nowadays. The calcaneofibular ligament holds your two leg bones together close to the ankle joint. That unzips all the way up (the leg) and I broke a bone just below my knee."
Well. It took a while for him to watch all that on tape.
The Bengals signed Tyler Eifert to a one-year deal for the 2019 season. A look back at some of the best images of Eifert with the Bengals.
"It was kind of like the elbow injury. It was pretty nasty and I couldn't watch it right away," Eifert said. "Once I got past the physical pain I was able to watch it. Now it's kind of like a badge of honor. 'Here, check this out. Look how nasty this is.' If you're going to go through it, you might as well show people."
So no one around here is ever, ever going to question Eifert's toughness. If they wonder why the Bengals are offering him another shot, then they've never seen the offense purring like it does with Eifert in there. He knows.
"On paper, I don't know if you can just find an offense that stacks up with our personnel. We have so many weapons. It's really exciting," Eifert said. "We just have to find a way to play with some consistency and keep that going through the whole season."