CINCINNATI -- Paul Guenther was absolutely right when he made the comment, but it was still high enough praise to make anyone who heard it pause and think about its validity.
"Vontaze [Burfict] has done a good job," the Cincinnati Bengals linebackers coach said. "He's playing at a high level -- Pro Bowl-level in my opinion. He's just got to keep going across the next five games."
With six weeks left on the Bengals' regular-season schedule, it feels incredibly early to be talking about players and their Pro Bowl odds. But with the way Burfict has played since Week 1, we could have been talking about him and Honolulu a while ago.
Currently the NFL's leading tackler, Burfict has been the Bengals' pacesetter on defense all season. Credited with 118 tackles through the first 11 games, he's on pace to add another 54 over the next five games. If he does that, he will end up with more than 170 stops this season. For those who don't know how good that is, we'll put it this way. If tackles could be compared to home runs in baseball, Burfict is hitting Barry Bonds/Mark McGwire/Sammy Sosa-like single-season territory.
Burfict is on pace to set a new team record. The current single-season tackles leader is Tim Krumrie, who had 151 in 1988. Jim LeClair had 138 in 1979, and Takeo Spikes had 128 in 2000.
Who's fourth on the all-time list? Burfict.
As a rookie last season, playing primarily because injuries slipped him into a starting role, the Arizona State product was credited with 127 tackles.
"He's a monster," defensive end Michael Johnson said. "Straight up."
Apparently he's a bionic one, too. In every game this year, Burfict has suffered some kind of injury and needed to be helped off the field. Just when the message gets relayed to the press box that he has an injury, Burfict goes trotting back onto the field a few plays later. He hasn't missed a game all year, but has missed practice time as he plays through some of the nicks and scrapes that he's picked up along the way.
Of course, when you're around the ball as often as Burfict, the probability of getting injured is high.
In an effort to give Burfict's sophomore season some perspective, we decided to take a look at the end-of-year statistics for three classes of Pro Bowl interior linebackers. (See the chart below.) It's safe to say that through 11 games, Burfict's 2013 season compares favorably.
Only five Pro Bowl inside linebackers from the past three years finished with more than 100 tackles in the regular season. The one who had the most, New England's Jerod Mayo, had 114 in 2010. That same season, he had two sacks. Across that same span, only three of those Pro Bowl 'backers had 100 or more tackles and at least one interception during those regular seasons. Arizona's Daryl Washington (2012), Kansas City's Derrick O. Johnson (2011) and former Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis (2010) accomplished that feat.
Along with Burfict's 118 tackles, he has a sack and an interception. Last week against Cleveland, he added a forced fumble and fumble recovery for touchdown to his résumé. That sequence, along with his 15 tackles helped him earn AFC Defensive Player of the Week honors for the first time in his career.
"I love the way Vontaze plays," Johnson said. "It's contagious. It spreads. He's a very smart player, too. Plays extremely hard."
He also plays with the type of edge that has earned him nine penalties, five of the 15-yard variety. While some have been somewhat controversial -- Burfict said league officialstold him one of the 15-yard penalties was unfairly awarded -- others have been due to his relentless pursuit. Against Baltimore last week, he earned a 15-yard penalty when he hit quarterback Joe Flacco as he was running out of bounds. Since Flacco was still in bounds when he got hit and made a move upfield with the ball, it was a questionable call.
Even other Burfict penalties, though, have been of what coach Marvin Lewis calls the "WWF" (World Wrestling Federation) variety.
"We can't have those," Lewis said. "We've got to clean them up as a football team. This is not the WWF, and you don't get any points for retaliating."
While Burfict may be having a Pro Bowl-caliber season, the polling hasn't reflected that so far. The Cowboys' Sean Lee and Buffalo's Kiko Alonso currently lead all inside linebackers in Pro Bowl voting.
After fan voting ends, players and coaches will cast their ballots at the end of December. The teams will be determined based upon the combination of the vote percentages. Also, remember, there is no AFC vs. NFC this year. There are two "unconferenced" teams. The top two vote-getters will be the team captains and choose their respective team from the Pro Bowl votes.