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NFL Draft

Brian Burns’ Future Is Bright For Carolina Panthers

  • The Draft Network
  • June 16, 2020
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Coming out of Florida State, Brian Burns had it all. He had back-to-back years of double-digit tackles for loss and was coming off a 10-sack season in his junior year. His measurables at 6-foot-4 and 250 pounds with a freakishly long wingspan made him an ideal full-time edge rusher. His 4.53 40-yard dash, his 36-inch vertical jump, and 10-foot, 9-inch broad jump were all in the top 20 percent of athletes for his position. With production, size, athleticism, and tape to put it all together, it’s easy to see why Burns was a top-10 pick in the 2019 NFL Draft.

Wait, Burns wasn’t a top-10 pick?

Sorry. It’s easy to see why Burns was a top-15 pick in the 2019 NFL Draft.

You’ve got to be kidding me. Sixteenth? Burns went 16th?

I don’t want to sit here and act like the 15 players who were selected ahead of Burns weren’t good. Nick Bosa, Josh Allen, Devin White, Devin Bush, Ed Oliver, and Quinnen Williams were just some of the big names on the defensive side of the ball who were worthy of their top-15 selections. But Burns was so good coming out, and after one season in Carolina proved that he can be so good at the pro level, too.

Burns played on 478 of Carolina’s defensive snaps last season. That was less than half of the total defensive snaps at just over 43 percent, and was the 11th-most defensive snaps on the team. Yet, Burns’ 7.5 sacks were the third-most on the team.

The Draft Network’s own Benjamin Solak found some sack rate numbers for Burns that were very encouraging for him moving forward. Burns averaged a sack for every 63.7 snaps he played. Compared to Jaguars pass rusher Josh Allen, who averaged a sack for every 60.4 snaps, we can see that Burns is in good company here with that kind of success rate. Using another metric, while Burns’ pressure rate was pretty standard, his pressure-to-sack conversion rate of one sack per four pressures was extremely high.

What was odd in the midst of what should be seen as a very successful rookie season for Burns was how the Panthers spaced out his usage.

In his first eight games (starting five of them), Burns logged 321 defensive snaps. In his last eight games, Burns only played 157 defensive snaps with no starts, but that was largely due to a wrist injury. Or, so we thought. The reason why I have to say that is because though Burns’ defensive snaps decreased at the time of his injury, his special teams snaps went up. The strangest number skew was in Week 15 when he logged more special teams snaps (15) than he did defensive snaps (7).

Strange, and hopefully not a trend moving forward since the new coaching staff should be well aware of how good Burns is. New head coach Matt Rhule went as far as naming Burns as the first player when announcing the Panthers will be playing more of a 4-3 base this season.

“We’ll be more of a base 4-3,” Rhule said. “You know the way the NFL’s going, even the 3-4 teams, half the game they’re in a four-down front anyway. To us, I thought Marty (Hurney) did a great job putting the ends together last year. You had Brian Burns and (Marquis) Haynes, picked up Stephen Weatherly who we think has a chance to be a really good starter.”

There are many factors that can go into a successful edge rusher; you don’t have to win in just one way. But the method which has the highest rate of success once you reach a certain level is when you pair great first-step explosiveness with great bend and flexibility. When you can do that—dip that shoulder right underneath an offensive tackle and bend around his waist to the quarterback—there aren’t many who can stop you.

Burns, as shown above, has that kind of ability. It’s not as consistent as it can be yet—there were more than a few times I saw him slow out of his stance when reviewing his rookie season—but when he hits it right, it is a thing of beauty.

Bending to the outside isn’t the only way to use bending and cornering to your advantage. As seen in the clip above, it can also be lethal when executing a stunt.

Watch how Burns was able to accelerate as he cornered past the interior offensive lineman. That kind of stuff is rare. To be able to increase your speed and simultaneously sharpen your turn does not exist in every pro-level pass rusher. That right there is a sign of elite athletic ability. That’s why you can take Burns’ 7.5 sacks from the previous season and have faith that it’s only the beginning.

The play above is simply more evidence of the kind of movement and momentum-control Burns has. Not only was he once again able to turn the corner, but he was able to bring the phrase “stop on a dime” to life.

Once you start to give offensive tackles trouble with burst and bend, you can really start messing with their heads. As stated before, most offensive tackles can’t handle the kind of speed and flexibility Burns has when he hits it right, and even if he does just once or twice, that will be in the back of an offensive lineman’s head all game. When that happens, you can really start to set them up for other moves like Burns did above.

That little stutter and head fake may seem small, but it got the offensive lineman to move one way while Burns could swim over the top and go the other—such a great display of explosiveness, changing of direction, and control from the rookie pass rusher.

The final clip I wanted to highlight from Burns’ first season once again put on display something that is a rooted trait that can really help a player grow into a great pass rusher: active hands.

The play above was not a clean win for Burns. He couldn’t beat the right tackle to the outside, and then when he tried to go back inside, the tackle was able to mirror him. But Burns was eventually able to break free. That wasn’t due to a move or a first step, it was because his hands never stopped working. Once quarterback Deshaun Watson dropped too far back into the pocket, Burns was able to see him and get him because of his hand movement.

Burns is not a finished product; he needs to utilize his length more, gain some more in-game experience when it comes to knowing which pass rush moves to use and when, and does need to improve as a run defender to make sure he’s on the field as much as possible. But when it comes to his early production, the high rate at which he recorded it, and the manner in which he did, it all points toward even bigger things in 2020 and beyond.

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