Vontaze Burfict has a message for kids.
Suddenly, soon to be 27, heading into his sixth NFL season, and with his knee feeling the best it has felt in the two years since surgery, Vontaze Burfict is helping the kids instead of being one of the kids. And with his good friend Rey Maualuga no longer next to him in the Bengals linebacker corps he feels the urgency in a role that now includes shepherding a group that has more new faces than Netflix.
Cincinnati Bengals host OTAs at Paul Brown Stadium Practice Fields.
Burfict and Vincent Rey are the only backers that have played more than 111 snaps for the Bengals. Nick Vigil played those 111 last season as a rookie, 57 of them when Burfict missed the last two games of the year. Kevin Minter has played four NFL seasons, but in an NFC 3-4 defense. Jordan Evans is a sixth-round draft pick coming out of 3-4 roots and fourth-round pick Carl Lawson is a pass rusher transitioning to part-time linebacker.
"Without my Uso, there's more pressure to be that leader of the group. To lead by example. All that stuff," Burfict says after the Bengals' voluntary workout on Tuesday. "I like (the new crew). It's different. Vinny and I are making sure everybody has the playbook down."
Those aren't the only kids Burfict wants to help. In the last month or so he's been touched by the headlines of bullying in schools that have screeched around the web locally and nationally with heart-breaking suicides. He's been in contact with his agent and the Bengals to find out how to reach out to families and schools.
"I feel like there are a lot of kids that get bullied and they aren't sure how to respond to when they're getting bullied," Burfict says. "I just want to go talk to a couple of schools, even in different states to try to figure out how to prevent from getting bullied and what to do if you are getting bullied."
The irony, of course, is that Burfict has a reputation for being a bully on the field. He doesn't think it's an accurate description and it certainly wasn't that way growing up in Corona, Calif.
"I wouldn't even use that word. I would just say he plays aggressively. I don't think bullying is even in my DNA," Burfict says. "I grew up where there were no bullies in my high school or elementary (school). I was actually one of the cool kids. There was one time I was walking home from school and I saw a kid getting beat up and I actually stopped it.
"In the middle of trying to stop it, the kids that were beating the kid up tried to fight me. I just told them, 'I'm not here for that. I came to help this kid because it looked unfair.' I don't enjoy seeing bullies or anybody getting bullied. It just kind of touched my heart to see (news stories about bullying)."
Nick Vigil is one of the kids Burfict feels the pressure to lead.
Burfict is ready to speak at any school any time and he knows exactly what he's going to say.
"You get help ASAP. There's no way to retaliate. You stay away from, obviously, those people in the first place," Burfict says. "If there's a reason you're getting bullied, you need to talk to your parents. Let them know. Talk to the principal. Talk to the teacher. Talk to security guards at the school. To make sure that you're feeling safe for your own well-being. Before anything else counteracts and you're doing something you regret or hurt other people."
It sounds as if Burfict knows how to talk to the older kids, too. Last year Vigil, a third-round pick out of Utah State, reminded Burfict so much of Panthers Pro Bowl middle linebacker Luke Kuechley that he called Vigil, "Luke." Until about the middle of last year, Vigil says. Now he calls him, "Nick," and in the nick of time because now they're on the field together. They drafted Vigil because of his athleticism and cover ability, so these are two backers you may see a lot of because the two-backer nickel package is on the field nearly 70 percent of the time.
"We're still learning to play next to each other and we're getting the kinks out," Vigil says. "He's one of these guys he knows everything. He's making calls and communicating very well so when you're out there with him it's a lot easier … The way he understands what the offense is going to do, he'll call the play out before it happens just by formation. He's an unbelievably good player."
Burfict is still a big fan of Vigil and he recalls the Kuechley story.
"Remember I told you guys that? He hasn't let me down," Burfict says. "He's smart. He helps me out when we're in there in nickel (and regular), or whatever package he's in with me. He helps me out. I see him growing year by year, day by day. He takes a lot of tips from me. I give him tips and the next time it comes up he executes the way I told him to. He's going to be an overall great linebacker coming up and I enjoy playing with him."
Evans, the rookie out of Oklahoma, has been all ears.
"It looks like he's the heart and soul of the defense," Evans says. "He knows everything. He makes sure everybody is right. As a young guy I just have to watch him and try to shadow him."
Evans is the guy who would have been the fastest linebacker at the scouting combine if he had been invited and that seems to be the mark of the new group. Even when Minter came out in 2013 he had a torrid 40-yard combine dash of 4.7 seconds that lifted him into the second round.
Defensive coordinator Paul Guenther thinks Burfict is looking a lot like he did as a Pro Bowler.
"I wouldn't say (we're faster)," Burfict says. "I say younger fresh legs. I wouldn't say there are a lot more mental errors, but there are things we have to work on since we have a lot of new guys, a lot of younger guys coming into the NFL. So there are things we have to fine-tune to get ready for live bullets."
There's also another new guy because the Burfict running around out there seems to be the one guys haven't seen since he hurt his knee in the middle of 2014 and underwent micro fracture knee surgery in the offseason. Vigil and linebackers coach Jim Haslett are good guys to consult since both got here last year.
"Everybody says this is the best they've seen him look," Vigil says. "He's in great shape and moving fast."
Haslett: "Physically he looks a lot better. He looks 100 percent better. I think he feels good. I know he's worked his butt off to get to this point."
Defensive coordinator Paul Guenther, who promoted Burfict to starter in the third game of his rookie season as the linebackers coach, has seen every nook and cranny of his career and he's encouraged. He recently sifted through some pictures and came across a shot of Burfict coming out of the tunnel at the Pro Bowl after the 2013 season.
"That's what he looks like," Guenther says. "He's in good shape. He's in a good mindset."
And, most importantly, Burfict feels it.
"Everything has felt great," he says. "Running wise. Field wise. Conditioning wise. This is the best I've felt."
But Burfict know his biggest role has to move beyond playmaker. He feels it and so do his coaches.
"Being a leader for all 11 guys is his charge now," Guenther says. "That has got to be his thing. We've had some guys that have been here and now they're not around anymore. Now he has to take over the reins of being the guy and I think guys will look up to him because he's a good player, he's very, very smart, and he understands our system like that back of his hand."
Haslett loves the old school way Burfict plays because, well, it's how Haslett worked it in the '80s with the Bills. But he's also looking for Burfict to move into the next realm and he's watching him do it.
"Physically, he looks great. Mentally, he's awesome, doing a great job," Haslett says. "The biggest thing for me is he's being a leader. He's taking control of the defense and I think that's the most important thing in his development and where he's going. If he can continue to do that and show leadership, that's his next step in the game."
The kids seem to be listening.
"Just how good of a guy he is," says Vigil when asked of the biggest misperception surrounding Burfict. "He's a very good people person .You can talk to him. He's just cool. He's nice. Do anything for you if you just ask him."
Ask him about missing the postseason for the first time last year and now you know a part of what is driving him.
"It's a little bit of hungriness because you know what you have to do to get there. And you know what you are capable of doing to get there," Burfict says. "So why not keep trying and just push to get to the Super Bowl?"