Grading Brian Burns, the Panthers’ first-round pick
The Carolina Panthers waited patiently for their draft board to fall into place in the first round of the 2019 NFL draft on Thursday night. And then they got their guy.
Florida State defensive end Brian Burns was the team’s selection at No. 16, and a field packed with Panthers fans at Bank of America Stadium watched their defense become better in an instant.
Panthers general manager Marty Hurney said Thursday night that Burns was a top choice. And when he didn’t come off the board by pick No. 12, they knew they had their guy.
“You know, there were times coming into this process that I didn’t think he’d be there,” said Hurney, shortly after making the pick. “But he was. And we’re thrilled to have him.”
Burns owned two Carolina Panthers jerseys as a child: That of newly-retired defensive end Julius Peppers, and his own brother’s, Stanley McClover, a former seventh-round pick. He even hung out with McClover and Peppers while on a visit to Charlotte.
Now, he’ll add his own jersey. Get his own locker inside Bank of America Stadium.
And it feels to the Panthers like a perfect match.
Panthers coach ‘fired up’ about Burns
As an outside linebacker/defensive end hybrid player for the Seminoles, Burns has the speed and technique to be a Day 1 starter on a defense that will feature multiple 3-4 and 4-3 fronts this fall.
“He’s a guy who fits the mold exactly for what we’re looking for,” head coach Ron Rivera said Thursday night. “Obviously some of the things that we’re doing defensively, he’s another piece to the puzzle as far as what we want to do and how we can attack people.
“I’m fired up about having him become a part of their defense.”
Rivera wouldn’t name Burns a starter right away. He wants Burns to compete with the pass-rushers currently on the roster, including veterans Mario Addison and Bruce Irvin. Burns will have to drop into coverage as an outside linebacker in a three-man front, and can rush as a 4-3 defensive end.
But Burns knows a thing or two about being an impact player.
A 6-foot-5, 250-pound Florida native, Burns earned freshman All-American honors for the Seminoles after a season in which he recorded 9.5 sacks and 10.5 tackles for loss — and he wasn’t even a starter.
By the time he declared early for the draft this spring, Burns had solidified his reputation as a player with relentless energy, who never really needed to come off the field.
“My team needed me. We didn’t have much depth at (defensive end),” he said on a conference call from Nashville, Tenn., as the first round of the draft continued to unfold.
“I just played my b---- off as much as I could.”
That’s what stood out to Hurney, both on and off the field.
“He’s got a drive,” Hurney said. “He knows how talented he is. But he also knows what he’s got to work on, and what he has to do to become a pro. But he’s our kind of guy.
“I think he really wanted to be here, which you always like. And he’s got some elite traits.”
Like the speed the Panthers desperately need to revive their pass rush.
Rivera said Burns stood out as the quickest in this year’s draft class off the ball.
“Elite skill set traits,” Hurney said. “You can’t coach some of the traits he has. The speed. The length. The change of direction.
“He just gives us another guy on the edge. Now we feel like we’ve got some guys on the edge who we feel can rush the passer.”
Dancing and basketball help spin moves
Burns ran a 4.53-second 40-yard dash at the NFL scouting combine this spring, and blends that explosiveness with an arsenal of moves, including a nasty spin that he said he has been developing since high school — and got even nastier due to Burns’ skill as a dancer and former basketball player.
“We talked more about pass rush than we did dancing,” Hurney laughed hard, turning bright red. “I didn’t talk to him about dancing.
“But the combination of his speed, his change of direction, and his ability to stop on a dime and redirect — then his length, he uses his length to set the edge on the run. And his arms are so long, he creates space between him and the blockers. He’s just got so many tools to work with.”
Carolina spent a lot of time with Burns this spring, with separate visits at the NFL scouting combine and by Hurney at Burns’ pro day.
“He’s a solid young man,” Rivera said. “Very bright. Very intelligent. Understands the game and has a good feel for the game.
“There were a lot of positive things that came out of our interactions with him that pushed him right to the top of our list.”
The Panthers’ staff, including Hurney and Rivera, also watched Burns’ every snap in college. They liked most of them — and when they discussed the ones they didn’t, they said Burns was quick to self-scout where he needed to improve.
“When you meet with him, he knows what he has to do,” Hurney said. “He has that drive, I think he has that confidence in himself that he can be the best, and he knows what he has to do to get there. He knows how high his ceiling is.”
Both Rivera and Hurney burst into wide grins as they recounted calling Burns, to let him know he was their guy.
Just like Burns was with McClover when the latter was drafted in 2006, McClover celebrated with Burns on Thursday night.
“He was all over, he couldn’t breathe,” laughed Burns.
“I don’t know who was more excited when we called him,” laughed Hurney. “You could just tell (they) were really, really happy.”
They weren’t the only ones.
As fans trickled out of the stadium late Thursday night, they slapped their hands on the walls, high-fived and chanted: “Keep pounding!”