NAPA -- Last year the Raiders' defense wasn't up to snuff. They couldn't stop the run, they couldn't get to the quarterback and their secondary suffered as a result of poor play at the first two levels.
Defensive coordinator Paul Guenther needed a field general. More importantly, he needed his field general.
So, when the Cincinnati Bengals cut ties with former Pro Bowl linebacker Vontaze Burfict, Guenther stumped for the Raiders to take a chance on a guy who played his first seven seasons under his tutelage. A guy who knows Guenther's scheme as well as, well ... Guenther.
The Raiders took the leap, signing the Arizona State product to a one-year, $2 million deal to help get Guenther's defense where it needs to be. Burfict comes to the Raiders after an up-and-down tenure with the Bengals that included 13 fines and suspensions for dirty hits and violating the league's performance-enhancing drug policy, seven reported concussions and a Pro Bowl nod.
Now 28, Burfict is ready to orchestrate the turnaround for a Raiders defense that must be worlds better if the Silver and Black plan to meet expectations in 2019.
"I just got to be a leader, man," Burfict said Monday. "I got to make sure I’m doing everything right, all the little things right. Obviously, people are looking up to me. And encouraging others like they encourage me. Just making sure I’m doing everything right, making sure they understand the play calls, putting guys in the right position. Just being the quarterback of the defense."
After a 4-12 season a year ago, head coach Jon Gruden and general manager Mike Mayock made sweeping changes to remake the roster into their vision of a Super Bowl contender.
Burfict wasn't the highlight of the Raiders' offseason. That was Antonio Brown. He won't bring the same fanfare that Tyrell Williams or rookies Clelin Ferrell, Josh Jacobs, Johnathan Abram and Hunter Renfrow will.
But make no mistake about Burfict's importance to Guenther's defense.
Gruden referred to Burfict as "the straw that stirs the drink" prior to the opening of camp. Burfict's knowledge of Guenther's system is invaluable to a Raiders defense that will inject a number of new faces from last season. The veteran linebacker has spent most of his time in Napa being peppered with questions from his teammates, both veterans and rookies alike.
“A lot," Burfict said when asked how many questions he gets about the scheme from his teammates. "I like it though, man. It kind of keeps me sharp on my game. You know, if you’re not talking about football, if you’re not thinking football, then what are we here for, man? A lot of the guys want to watch film with me to see what I know. And like I said, it keeps me sharp at the same time I’m coaching them, I’m coaching myself. I’m enjoying it. I enjoy being a leader and I just want all 11 to think the same way so we all can play fast.”
Among those who Burfict is teaching is veteran linebacker Brandon Marshall. After a successful run with the Broncos, Marshall was brought in to be another veteran leader on the linebacking corps, but he missed time in the spring while rehabbing an injury. Now that he's healthy and getting live reps as the weakside linebacker, he's using Burfcit's knowledge to get up to speed.
"Vontaze, people don’t normally speak about his intelligence, his football intelligence," Marshall said Monday. "Has to be one of the smartest football players I’ve played with. He’s been in this defense his whole career and he knows the ins and outs, he’s played the (weakside linebacker) position. So I lean on him a lot right now."
The Raiders put on pads for the first time in camp Monday, and gave an "OK" performance by Burfict's admission, but the veteran linebacker is confident his unit will be a lot better than the one that was one of the worst in the NFL last season.
Reputation wise, Burfict and the Raiders appeared to be a perfect match. The Raiders, in their glory days, were known for playing hard, being tough and occasionally toeing and stepping over the line. The same can be said of Burfict, and he certainly feels like donning the silver and black was destiny.
“Yeah,” Burfict said with a chuckle. “Actually when Coach G went to the Raiders I’m like, ‘Damn you’re leaving me, huh?’ He’s like, ‘yeah.’ I just looked at him like, ‘I’m going to be there with you one day.' I could feel it.”
The expectations have been ratcheted up for the Raiders, and they have had a glaring hole at middle linebacker for quite some time. Whether or not they meet those expectations could come down to Burfict. Not only his leadership and knowledge, but also his health, his composure and whether or not he himself still has enough left in the tank to be the guy the Raiders need him to be.