Mike Zimmer, the crusty Bengals defensive coordinator, likes his players unheralded, unselfish and unadorned.
Zim guys. Bengals. Diamonds in the rough the club has found scattered across America and in the margins of its draft board.
Undrafted pieces like Dan Skuta and Jeromy Miles from years past have emerged as potential key regulars during an internship on special teams while Vincent Rey has become a special teams staple. And it looks like current rookie free agent Vontaze Burfict may be ready to follow in their footsteps at backup middle linebacker.
But that's not the way it started for Burfict back in May. When Zimmer began prepping for rookie minicamp after the Bengals signed him in free agency, he emerged from watching Burfict's last season on tape shaking his head in a bit of shock.
"It didn't look like," Zimmer said after Sunday's practice, failing to stifle a laugh, "that he could play. It's been different."
Burfict was supposed to arrive from Arizona State with more baggage than CVG but he didn't even bring a carry-on.
"He's instinctive. He's got good eyes. Good vision. Pretty tough. It seems like he handles the calls pretty well," Zimmer said. "He's got a little personality to him. He hasn't been a problem. Not once. Not even an inkling."
Zimmer gets irked when he hears inklings.
Yes, the kid has looked pretty good. Yes, starting middle linebacker Rey Maualuga has played just three snaps this preseason before spraining his knee. But don't make the leap with Zimmer.
"I know what everybody is getting at. Maualuga's a good player," Zimmer said. "So don't even … I don't know if (Burfict) can make the 53."
Burfict is locked in a steel cage match for the backup middle spot with 2010 fourth-round pick Roddrick Muckelroy. Zimmer says Muckelroy's ankle has held up after neatly bouncing back from Achilles surgery with a team-leading 15 tackles. There's always the chance he makes it instead of Burfict, or the Bengals keep seven backers.
Or, they could conceivably keep both by putting Muckelroy on the 53 and Burfict on the practice squad since Muckelroy has no practice squad eligibility. But has Burfict played well enough to get picked up off waivers? Once bandied about as a first-round talent, just exactly how large is that upside?
"He's got a chance. I don't know," Zimmer said. "It's still early. There's a lot of time for him to jump off the reservation. I wouldn't put all my marbles in him yet."
But he does like Burfict's personality.
"He's happy. He has fun playing," Zimmer said. "He's not scared of the big stage, it doesn't seem like."
Still, never mind comparing Burfict to Maualuga. Zimmer won't compare him to Skuta yet.
Skuta came out of Division II Grand Valley State in 2009 and caught enough eyes to make the practice squad. He toiled there for five weeks before getting promoted and since then has 39 special teams tackles and 36 other tackles in 40 games while playing and practicing at SAM and middle backers, defensive end and fullback. Zimmer loves everything about him. Including his "broken-down Escalade."
"He's become a good player," Zimmer said. "He's reckless and tough and his attitude is good for the defense."
After coming out of Massachusetts, another small school, the next year, Miles sat 10 games on the practice squad before getting the call. He's got 20 special teams tackles in 22 games and is getting praise from Zimmer for his work at safety, where it sounds like he'll use Miles, among others, as Chris Crocker is replaced by committee.
And then there's Rey, another rookie free agent that came in with Miles and had to wait 12 weeks on the practice squad. Since then it's been 11 special teams tackles in 18 games and last Thursday, Rey, a Duke product, racked up 10 tackles against the Packers.
Plus, it looks like Nick Hayden is going to make it at defensive tackle. He was drafted by the Panthers in the sixth-round in 2008, but he qualifies. He was on the street for the first 12 games of last season after he didn't make Carolina's final cuts until the Bengals signed him in the wake of Pat Sims's injured ankle.
With Sims not yet appearing this summer with a hamstring issue, Hayden has made the most of the time. Since Sims looks headed to PUP and SAM backer/defensive end Dontay Moch is suspended for the first four games of the season, who knows how long he hangs around or how many games he's active? But he's a Zim guy.
"He's tough, disciplined, coachable, I like him," Zimmer said. "He's dependable. He does a lot of things you like. He's the kind of guy we like. Works hard. Puts the team first."
So the possibility is there the Bengals could have just three backup linebackers all active on game day and all undrafted: Skuta, Burfict and Rey. Throw in Miles and Hayden, and with the roster cutdown set for Friday, it's just another reminder not everyone has to hug the commissioner to get into the league.
"Smart guys," Zimmer said. "Coachable, they try as hard as they can try, and they've got something to prove."