After a 2018 season in which the Carolina Panthers’ pass-rush all but fizzled out, the coaching staff took an axe to the defensive line to fix it.
The Panthers split apart their scheme this offseason, opting in 2019 to manufacture more pressure by mixing three- and four-man fronts where they previously played mostly out of a 4-3. Head coach Ron Rivera decided he will call plays in 2019, with defensive coordinator and longtime defensive line coach Eric Washington designing them.
Then, they soaked the whole defensive line in gasoline by adding defensive end Bruce Irvin in free agency.
Now, they need a spark. A flame to bring the pass rush back to its former quarterback-eating ways.
That’s why at No. 16 in this year’s NFL draft, the Panthers should select Florida State defensive end Brian Burns.
Burns, a 6-foot-5, 250-pound Florida native, was a day one impact player for the Seminoles’ program without even being a full-time starter, earning freshman All-American honors after a 9.5-sack, 10.5-tackles for loss season.
From there, people began to take notice — particularly of how Burns excelled in high-profile games.
Like against Clemson in 2017. Burns racked up 4.5 tackles for loss and two sacks despite Florida State being far outmatched by that year’s Tigers team.
That’s a plus for the Panthers. When investing a first-round pick in a player who has to contribute immediately, Carolina’s staff wants someone who has proven himself against high-caliber talent and in big-time games.
They also want speed. Quarterbacks are getting the ball out of their hands faster than ever. Two quarterbacks in the NFL who rank in the top third of quickest releases — Drew Brees and Matt Ryan — are in the Panthers’ division, according to NextGen Stats. That’s at least four games per year — and heavy playoff implications — in which Carolina’s speed must kill.
Burns can help here. He ran a 4.53-second 40-yard dash at the NFL scouting combine this spring, and stories have flowed throughout the pre-draft process about scouts getting downright starry-eyed watching Burns bend, twist and spin around tackle dummies during workouts, or blow by offensive linemen via his college film.
Carolina has spent a lot of time with Burns, with separate visits at the NFL scouting combine and by general manager Marty Hurney at Burns’ pro day. Burns has also been a popular pick for the Panthers in mock drafts throughout the pre-draft process.
It’s safe to say that Burns has been on the Panthers’ radar for months.
But they were aware of him long before that. Burns visited Charlotte as a child, after his older brother, defensive end Stanley McClover, was drafted by the Panthers in the seventh round of the 2006 draft.
Burns said recently that while growing up, he owned two Panthers jerseys: his brother’s, and that of recently retired longtime defensive end Julius Peppers.
Ironically, Burns, if drafted, would have to replace Peppers as a Panthers’ starting defensive end.
He’s 3 inches and about 50 pounds lighter than Peppers, of course. But based on the quiet, Peppers-esque way in which Burns conducts himself on and off the field, filling a similar role as the future Hall-of-Famer doesn’t sound like it would be too big for him.
“Doing everything right plays a part (in whether) you’re going to win or not,” he said, during a recent radio interview. “So if you’re not doing everything right off the field but you’re doing everything right on the field, I think you’re gonna fall short (in) those close games.”
Burns’ pass-rushing style blends athleticism with intelligence — a trait shared by some of the most successful pass-rushers in the league.
“I feel like I take bits and pieces from the people I like to watch as far as Khalil Mack, Von Miller, Leonard Floyd, Dee Ford,” Burns said at the combine. “There’s a lot of dudes. I just look at them.”
Where Burns might most excel in Carolina is as a weapon of versatility.
He is projected to play as a defensive end in a 4-3 defensive front, and as an outside linebacker in a 3-4. So not only could Burns be effective rotating with veteran defensive end Irvin in a four-man front, he can also fill the need the Panthers have at outside linebacker in a three-man front after the team parted with longtime linebacker Thomas Davis this spring.
Burns is a fastball off the edge. But because he can line up anywhere, the quarterback will never really know when he’s coming — or from which direction. He has a full repertoire of moves, including a nasty spin that he’s been working on since high school, blending techniques he learned as a self-described dancer and former basketball player.
That makes for a pretty frightening fastball. And a much-needed spark.
Round 1: 8 p.m., Thursday (ABC, ESPN, NFLN)
Rounds 2-3: 7 p.m., Friday (ABC, ESPN/ESPN2, NFLN)
Rounds 4-7: Noon, Saturday (ABC, ESPN/ESPN2, NFLN)
Panthers Picks: Round 1 - 16th; round 2 - 47th; round 3 - 77th and 100th; round 4 - 115th; round 5 - 154th; round 6 - 187th.