Undrafted but undaunted


Vontaze Burfict

The Bengals released the names of most of their college free agents Tuesday, that NFL sub-species of player nobody takes seriously until they crawl out from the bottom of the roster when the lights come on and start playing snaps that matter.

The undrafted players are the most overlooked group and, at the same time, one of the most valuable areas of talent and among the most accomplished once many of their careers are done.

Just look at the Bengals playoff run last year, where three CFAs (linebackers Vontaze Burfict and Emmanuel Lamur and center Trevor Robinson) started a combined 22 games and three more CFA veterans (linebackers Dan Skuta and Vincent Rey and safety Jeromy Miles) were the club's top three special teams tacklers.

And even though he's not one of their own, Mississippi undrafted running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis racked up a 1,000-yard season in his first Bengals run.

And just look at the Bengals linebackers room, where the club on Tuesday added undrafted rookies Jayson DiManche of Southern Illinois and Bruce Taylor of Virginia Tech. And if you're an undrafted linebacker, why wouldn't you sign with the Bengals? Already in coach Paul Guenther's room is the King James version of the CFA legend. James Harrison, who went from not getting picked to being picked Super Bowl MVP and Defensive Player of the Year during his 11-year career.

Also in tow is last year's CFA of the Year, Burfict. After he got passed over 158 times from the fourth round on, he ended up making 174 tackles in a Rookie of the Year-caliber season.

And just as Guenther left Paul Brown Stadium for the day, he had been informed that Jordan Campbell of the Triple A name jackpot of New Mexico Highlands was in the process of signing and getting his contract back to PBS.

So the Bengals now have only three drafted linebackers since Dontay Moch appears headed to play defensive end: middle linebacker Rey Maualuga, rookie outside backer Sean Porter (picked in Saturday's fourth round) and Aaron Maybin, a first-round pick working on his third team and a new position. Everybody else? Undrafted and unloved.

You've heard of Linebacker U? The Bengals have Linebacker Inc. Every undrafted backer demographic. From Super Bowl MVP to, well, New Mexico Highlands.

"I love undrafted guys," Guenther says. "I take great pride in guys nobody wants and helping making them a productive NFL player. I like to get guys who have no knowledge of what we're doing. You can teach them from ground zero and go from there. Hopefully these new college free agents we've got do the same thing."

Guenther looks at it like this if he culls some CFAs.

"Then," he says, "you can spend some picks on pass rushers and cover guys."

CFAs, like everything else in the draft room, are a team effort between the scouts and coaches. The Bengals CFA success is just as much a scouting story as it is a coaching tribute. The assistants are usually the guys that have to close the deals in the hour after the draft and the ensuing tractor-pull between teams.

And Guenther doesn't mind wheeling out the Big Man if it's getting close.

Such as Saturday night, when he gave the phone to head coach Marvin Lewis to finish off the courting of DiManche.

But this class has a hard act to follow. Not only is there Burfict, but there is Kansas State's Lamur. He flew off the practice squad to become Cincinnati's best cover backer in the last eight games before securing a starting berth in the Wild Card playoff game.

Now that you mention it, Guenther sees some similarities in the 6-2, 232-pound DiManche. Lamur was 6-4, 230 last year at this time before he had a monstrous offseason weight program.

"DiManche reminds me a lot of E-Man," Guenther says. "He's real athletic. He can dunk. He's going to be one of the best athletes in the room the minute he walks in."

"The guy's got great numbers," Guenther says of the kid that didn't get invited to the NFL scouting combine. "You look at his times (in drills) and he'd be in the top five in every (combine) category for linebackers. But he was a (rushing) outside linebacker. If you looked at his tape and how he played, how he dropped into coverage and played special teams, he's a guy that we can put out at both outside spots."

The 6-1, 237-pound Taylor is sitting in the other boat. He was invited to the combine.

"Someone must have thought he was one of the best linebackers in the country. He had a great career at Tech," Guenther says. "He's a big, physical guy. Big-bodied. Big hands. He's long. He understands. We'll probably put him at SAM."

Once Campbell gets in the fold, the Bengals will probably put him in the middle because he seems to have some instincts, just like his fellow Corona, Calif., product. Burfict.

And every CFA that shows up to the May 10-12 rookie minicamp (they'll meet the night of the 9th) would be wise to follow every move Burfict made last year.

"Coming in coachable," Guenther says of the recipe. "Stay on top of our studies. Do how they are asked to do the techniques the way we're coaching them and see the big picture of what we're trying to do."

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