At least Burfict's plummet in the 2012 draft makes some sense. He'd started out as the Pac-10 defensive freshman of the year, lauded for his natural ball-hawking instincts. As a sophomore he was an All-American, praised for an aggressiveness that often resulted in personal fouls, but was seen by NFL evaluators as an indicator of the kind of aggression that helps one overcome a slow step or thick waist. "That's when the comparisons to Ray Lewis really started," says ESPN NFL draft expert Mel Kiper Jr. "You heard people talking about raw ability, something they could refine once he was drafted, which everyone believed would happen very early in that 2012 draft."
But by the end of his junior season, all of the early descriptions -- raw, unrefined, explosive -- had shifted from positives to negatives. As a 6-2 would-be championship season deteriorated into a 6-7 hot mess, so did Burfict's reputation. But why?
"There are two ways these guys are evaluated," an NFL scout explained during this year's bowl season, swiping through his iPad to pull up clips and stats on Burfict from that 2011 season. Scouts attend college practices and games nearly year-round. They love to talk. But they know they will be fired in an instant if their name is attached to what they have to say. "First, there is this stuff: the hard, fast data and the film. It doesn't lie. And what it told us about him that year was that the football player was still in there. Forget the personal fouls (an NCAA-leading 22 in 37 games). A good coach can work with mean. But the second part of this process is the part that you don't see."
That would be the chatter. The gossip. The over-in-the-corner conversations that take place on the back row of press boxes high above the stadium and in the tunnels below it, starting as off-the-record whispers and ending as career-altering reports rolling off printers in the offices of the NFL's 32 general managers. In the case of Burfict, the tales of arrests and locker room helmet flings in Tempe (none of which were ever proved) started overtaking the anecdotes of his great play.
"I compare it to the stock market," says Bill Polian, former Indianapolis Colts and Carolina Panthers GM and now ESPN analyst. "There will always be things that a CEO or a board of directors can do to dictate their company's worth on the market. But there are also things they can't control. What those traders are saying down on the floor or in the bars on Wall Street."
In football, those traders are the scouts. Those scouts talk to coaches. Those coaches have talked to one another. And everyone talks to everyone else in hotel bars and on driving ranges. In the case of underclassmen entering the draft, there are little to zero trustworthy measurables to fall back on. So it's the talk that rules. "Once that talk gets out there, it consumes the whole process," says Kiper, who dropped Burfict from a top-15 slot on his NFL Draft Big Board all the way to 95th but refused to remove him from the top 100 altogether. "I had NFL personnel guys calling me and saying, 'Are you nuts? Don't you hear what's going on with this guy?' And I did, but I just couldn't shake the video from 2011 and what we'd seen from him at his best. You had to think that player was still in there."