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Cincinnati Bengals Linebacker Vontaze Burfict is Only Average on Weak Side

Yahoo Contributor Network

COMMENTARY | One of the feel-good stories from the 2012 season was the effort of Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict. He fell out of the good graces of the NFL's coaching staffs -- enough to allow him to go undrafted.

It only took one coach willing to give him a chance. Marvin Lewis was that man. Burfict impressed during training camp to such an extent that he not only made the team, but made the 45-man gameday active roster.

After an injury to weak-side linebacker Thomas Howard, Burfict took over permanently at the position. He went on to lead the Bengals in tackles in 2012 with a total of 127. That alone is unprecedented and impressive for an undrafted rookie.

Despite Burfict's early success, he is not suited for the WILL position and is only an average player at best when he lines up in that spot. In fact, Pro Football Focus ranked Burfict 18th out of the 43 eligible 4-3 middle linebackers from 2012 -- practically average.

Yes, Burfict had some remarkable games as a tackler last season -- he seemed to be everywhere on the field during the Week 17 contest against the Baltimore Ravens. However, outside of Burfict's great tackling ability, it is difficult to make a positive case for his efforts at the WILL position.

The weak-side linebacker position is vastly different from Burfict's natural spot in the middle. He is asked to do many different things that do not agree with his skill set.

WILL linebackers are relied heavily in coverage -- Burfict showed that this is not his strong suit after opposing quarterbacks averaged a 110.4 passer rating when throwing at him in 2012.

Also, a weak-side linebacker is supposed to rely heavily on speed and the ability to get around the edge to pressure the quarterback. Burfict struggled mightily in this area in 2012 -- he was given a negative-3.5 grade by Pro Football Focus.

Burfict's strong suits are his ability to make solid, fundamental tackles in space and his tenacity in the trenches against offensive linemen -- he is a very capable stack-and-shed linebacker that can get to the ball-carrier in a hurry.

These traits make him a prototypical middle linebacker.

So, what should the Bengals do in this particular instance?

Conventional wisdom would be to utilize each linebacker on the team to their strengths. Burfict should slide into the middle while the weak-side position is manned by the athletic Emmanuel Lamur -- a perfect example of a linebacker with a WILL skill set. This will keep veteran James Harrison on the strong side and will push Rey Maualuga to the bench to serve as a backup.

Each of these linebackers would now be able to use their best attributes while on the field. In addition, the Bengals would be getting a solid backup in Maualuga -- he may not be a great starter, but could be one of the most valuable backups at the linebacker position due to his ability to play MIKE and SAM.

Yes, Burfict is only an average weak-side linebacker. However, he has all of the tools to become one of the most dominant middle linebackers in the league. The Bengals would be very wise to make this switch as soon as possible.

Sean O'Donnell is a contributor for Yahoo! Sports and a featured columnist for Bleacher Report. He is also the co-host of the Bengals Central podcast on the Pro Football Central radio network. You can follow him on Twitter: @SeanODonnellNFL

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