The 1,000-1 longshot paid off for both sides Wednesday when Bengals Pro Bowl WILL linebacker Vontaze Burfict signed his extension that keeps the heart and soul of the Bengals No. 3 defense in Cincinnati through 2017.
"You have to build that bridge," Burfict said Wednesday. "You can't be the richest man in one day. You have to work to get it. I feel like that's what I have to do and I signed the deal after working my way up and getting to be where I want to be and it took a couple of years."
It took a couple of years and a week. News broke that he had reached the extension last Wednesday, but it wasn't signed until this Wednesday. He indicated there was "a tweak" with the early part of the deal in 2015 and admitted he was a little bit relieved he had it off his plate going into the Sept. 7 opener in Baltimore.
Initial reports from NFL.com and ESPN.com pegged the total deal at $20 million with about $16 million in new money over the next two years, putting him in the top seven of inside linebackers at $8 million per year. But at 23 and not yet taken a snap in his third season, he got it a lot sooner than the rest.
"I'm happy to be a Bengal. I always look forward to bigger and better things. Our defense is very talented,' he said. "My family is excited and happy for everything that's come along."
So is Bengaldom. After a season he led the league in tackles, his No. 55 jersey is the biggest seller in the Bengals Pro Shop and he thinks his defense is on the verge of another big season under new coordinator Paul Guenther, his linebackers coach under Mike Zimmer.
"The coaching has helped me become a great player and be a leader on defense," Burfict said. "I've come a long way. That's helped me keep my head on straight. Just go play the game and great things happen. That's why I was able to sign the deal and be blessed to play football.
"We're more talented," said Burfict of this season. "We let some guys go, but there are so many guys stepping up I can't even name them. And Coach G is coaching it up and we're all on the same page and I feel our defense has the potential to be in the top five."
Accompanied by his girlfriend and agent at the Paul Brown Stadium offices, Burfict put pen to the paper that gave the club its second big deal of the preseason. Bengals vice president Troy Blackburn, who crafted this pact, joined wife Katie in overseeing a major future investment in the last three weeks.
It comes 23 days after Bengals executive vice president Katie Blackburn and the representatives of Andy Dalton reached a six-year extension. The Bengals now have both quarterbacks under lock and key before Thursday's 7 p.m. preseason finale (11:35 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) at PBS against the Colts.
Burfict, the undrafted free agent, has now gone full circle. The man who got $1,000 to sign two years ago gets $10 million by next spring. Since he turns just 24 in three weeks, he'll get another pay day by the time he's 27, or sooner.
Last week, Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis reminisced about how Burfict's first practice in May of 2012 reminded him of another inside backer he once coached, future first ballot Hall of Famer Ray Lewis.
"Vontaze is a special talent; he has shown us that from his first day here," Lewis said in Wednesday's news release. "He is a load physically (6-1, 255) and he's extremely competitive, but what really makes him stand out is the instinct and feel he has for the game. It's something born in him, you can't coach a player to naturally react the way he does in all situations. This signing is a great move for the future of our defense."
Burfict not only led the NFL in tackles last season, he led the Bengals in tackles-for-loss with eight and tied for the front-seven lead in passes defensed (10). He had three sacks, two fumble recoveries and one forced fumble. He returned one of his fumble recoveries for a 13-yard touchdown Nov. 17 against Cleveland in a game he had 18 tackles and was AFC Defensive Player of the Week.
Guenther says he relies on Burfict. Not only because he never comes off the field no matter the situation, but because of his teeming football acumen that can process calls, relay signals, and decode offenses.
"I told the linebackers in our room, knowledge is power. Guys will respect you if you understand what to do and how to do it," Guenther said. "Just not your position, the whole scheme. He's smart enough and he can absorb it and remember it."
The quintessential Burfict performance came two weeks after Cleveland. After making the trip to San Diego in a boot on Friday with an injured ankle and virtually being scratched Saturday night, he made 13 tackles on Sunday in keying a victory over the Chargers.
"It's unusual to sign a player this early in his career to a contract extension, but Vontaze is a player who merits this," said Katie Blackburn in the news release. "He has proven to be an exceptional find for us, and we are happy to reward him now for his accomplishments. It's good for him and good for our team."
It's believed the Burfict deal has put the Bengals over the $133 million salary cap for 2014 and has begun to nibble at their $8 million carryover for 2015. But that won't stop them from trying to extend three-time Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green before the start of next season, they've said. They've already exercised their fifth-year option and are committed to pay Green $10.5 million in 2015.
Asked if he has any plans for the future with his new deal, the former $1,000 Man has a season to play.
"Haven't thought about it," Burfict said. "I'm focusing on football now. Maybe I'll take a vacation after the season."