Not many rookies fly under the radar when they accumulate 7.5 sacks on less than half of their team’s defensive reps, yet that was seemingly the case for Carolina Panthers EDGE Brian Burns in his first professional campaign.
Falling to 16th overall in the draft mainly due to concerns about his weight and run-stopping ability, Burns played exceptionally well as a newbie, proving that these so-called worries were largely overblown in the pre-draft process.
Now using his quiet momentum from his first year, Burns has seemingly built upon his promising rookie season and looks poised for a full-blown breakout as a sophomore.
There’s no getting around it. The first thing that sticks out when you watch Burns is his athleticism.
Immediately attracting any eyes with his explosion and burst, Burns is a physical specimen who combines top-tier testing numbers with exceptional get-off off of the line of scrimmage. Using a dynamic first step to his advantage on obvious rush downs, Burns has proven he can win almost entirely off of athleticism if needed, especially against weaker right tackles in 3rd-and-long situations. You need a more refined toolbox then that when you want to become an NFL-level sack artist, but it’s this baseline of exceptional traits—and the fear they strike into opponents—that serves as the roots to all of what Burns does.
After all, just like how a speedy wide receiver stretches a defense vertically, a quality edge defender can do the same with their athleticism. Burns' speed often causes offensive lineman to overset, and that’s when he can cut back inside with a long lateral stride or a swift swim move. Even false start penalties can be committed when this fear of speed is prevalent, as evidenced by the two Burns drew against Los Angeles this past weekend.
More than Speed
As mentioned in the paragraph above, speed and athleticism are obviously extremely important, mainly because it opens you up a full pass-rush arsenal to choose from. Having these athletic gifts are only useful if you know what you're doing, though, and thankfully for Burns, he’s more than capable in this regard.
Much more refined than you’d expect off of first glance, Burns can reach through the entire playbook when needed. Most popular in his repertoire are probably the chop/spin, chop/swim, a simple long arm, or just ripping and dipping around the arc. Yes, he’s still developing with his hand usage and as an overall technician, but he’s knowledgeable and knows exactly when to apply these moves, which is probably the biggest thing you could hope for a player at this point in his career.
Giving different looks as games progress, Burns is strategic with how he goes about things, understanding when to divvy things up, particularly if he’s in the same alignment or he sees certain blocking in front of him.
Maybe the rarest part about Burns’ game, and something that comes in many different forms, is his superb balance and flexibility.
Most will see this as his ability to dip around the edge and create a tight arc to the quarterback (and they would still be right), but in this case when I mention flexibility, it also goes beyond just the primary use of the term.
Able to shift his body effortlessly and contort his shoulders in alien-type ways, Burns is so good at shrinking his overall surface area—particularly when linemen throw out punches—which makes it so much harder for them to land successful punches. Able to use this wiggle to squirm through tight spaces, Burns has been largely successful actually faking outside moves and then using his slithery nature to split through the B-gap (something that is also made possible by the major holes linemen create when they fear his speed on vertical passing sets).
Seeing 75% of Carolina’s snaps this year compared to just 43% a year ago, the main reason Burns has gotten more playing time this year—aside from improved play and more experience—is the Panthers’ willingness to play him in coverage. Never used in this regard as a rookie (only had one pass thrown at him all year), Burns has always had the movement skills and fluidity to succeed in this regard, but for some reason hadn’t.
Usually aligning as the “wide 9” in Carolina’s 4-3 scheme, Carolina is still using Burns as primarily just that, but they now aren’t afraid to drop him back in coverage more, use him as a Will linebacker at times, or even throw him out there at “big nickel” on occasion.
This added coverage dimension has been something other teams have tried to exploit (he has been targeted nine times for nine completions), but Burns has only allowed 5.8 yards per attempt in these instances. All things considered, that’s a definite win, especially when Burns already looks natural filling spots in zones and exchanging pass-catchers at the proper moments.
It’s not a big thing, but this subtle change to use Burns more in coverage has made the team much more comfortable giving him expanded reps, especially in early-down and likely running situations, as not only does the team get improved strength on the line with him removed, but they get added size and versatility on the second level as well.
As long as it doesn’t overly take away from his pass-rushing (which through three games it hasn’t), this expanded coverage role is a win-win for both Burns and the Panthers.
Can he stop the run?
Everything that I’ve pointed out about Burns so far has been terrific, and for the most part, it's a perfect illustration of his 2020 start.
Through three games he hasn’t been flawless, however, as the Florida State product has displayed a few limitations worth bringing up, especially when they’re the same so-called issues that plagued Burns pre-draft.
Not dominant defending against the ground nor overly successful at stacking and shedding, Burns simply hasn’t wowed with strength, physicality, or power at the point of attack—the same weaknesses that appeared in his collegiate film.
At the end of the day though, that just isn’t his game, and Carolina has recognized this by surrounding Burns with enough interior help (Kawann Short, Derrick Brown) and a bigger 5-tech (Stephen Weatherly) to help counter some of his deficiencies in this regard. As long as the sack artist is setting the edge in average fashion (check), not playing out of position (check), and playing with effort and aggression (check), he’s doing enough.
Strength will never be his strength (pun intended), but when you’re a freak pass-rusher with scary athleticism and the ability to cover in space, that’s more than fine.
Burns essentially is what he was heading into the draft—a dominant rusher with some limitations against the run—but he has been boosted by improved technique, a more creative arsenal, and much more schematic creativity.
Proving that he can do just fine without being perfect in every single area, he has an elite combination of traits that can make him a 10-plus sack player in 2020 and a potential All-Pro candidate down the line.