Surely, there’s room on this Carolina Panthers defense for two superheroes.
The first, as was evident in Thursday’s preseason win against Chicago, is defensive end/outside linebacker Brian Burns. Burns was the team’s first-round pick in April’s NFL Draft, and many experts pegged him as having the fastest first step in the class. He put that speed to good use against the Bears en route to two sacks, celebrating after each one with a Spider-Man pose.
Burns said after Sunday’s practice none of his teammates could replicate those super positions, not even quarterback Cam Newton. (“Not even close,” Burns joked of Newton’s try.) But if all goes according to plan for Panthers pass-rushers in 2019 — one in particular — the team might need to invest in some Marvel stock.
While Burns had the flashier celebrations Thursday, he wasn’t the only edge rusher to record two sacks.
Marquis Haynes did it, too. And Burns is already trying to pin him with his own hero nickname.
“I ain’t got nothing lined up like he does, but he’s calling me Black Panther, so I guess that’s got to be my celebration,” Haynes told the Observer Sunday. “I’ve seen the movie — Wakanda, yep.
“If it has to be anything, I guess he’s gonna be Spider Man and I’m Black Panther.”
All jokes aside, the similarities between Burns and Haynes run deeper than post-sack ceremonies. While Burns is longer and heavier — he’s listed at 6-foot-5, 250 pounds compared to Haynes at 6-2, 235 pounds — they share one crucial skill that can’t be taught.
“We both have a tremendous gift that God has blessed us with,” Burns said.
Carolina’s new 3-4 scheme allows both players to hone that speed from a stand-up position, but that wasn’t always the case for Haynes as a rookie in 2018. He had 32 sacks at Ole Miss to set the modern-era college record, but lacked the size to contribute as a down defensive end.
The change to a more hybrid front, which Haynes said is similar to the multiple scheme he ran at Ole Miss, makes his frame less of an issue getting after the quarterback.
“It’s not really much different,” Haynes said of how Carolina’s system compares to his collegiate one. “It’s about the same. This one here, they want us to just let loose.”
And that showed from the first play of the preseason, when he knifed through the Bears’ defensive line for a tackle for loss. Haynes wasn’t perfect against Chicago — he got sucked inside on the Bear’s lone touchdown run and failed to properly set the edge — but his penetration was impressive, from that initial TFL to his two sacks later on.
“I thought Marquis, on the very first play of the game, came off the edge the way we wanted him to come off, and he made a play,” coach Ron Rivera said. “If both (he and Burns) continue to work at it and play well, I know I mentioned earlier that we could have a good three-man rotation — we could have a good four-man rotation.”
Rivera pointed out that, for their similarities, there are still differences between the two young rushers. Burns’ length and quickness stand out, where Haynes is more explosive and powerful.
Neither is a finished product. Both will continue to learn Carolina’s new defense, but Haynes at least has the benefit of a year in a professional locker room. That means his weight-training, his time management, his diet — it’s all more advanced than Burns’ could be as a rookie just months into his career.
That’s why the two have become friends so quickly. Even though Burns’ pedigree as the No. 16 overall pick dwarfs the hype Haynes earned as a fourth-rounder, their skill sets naturally draw them to each other.
“He asks me what he can do better and I ask him what I can do better,” Haynes said. “It goes in-and-out. There’s like, no way we’ll let one another go out there and make a mistake. We want each other to be better.”
More than anything, Haynes wants himself to be better. And you can tell the difference in his disposition from this time a year ago.
Where there was an information overload earlier, now there are instincts flourishing. Where there was stress and fitting in, now there’s a sense of real comfort.
“I was always happy, but you know, you come in as a rookie, you get a lot at thrown you,” Haynes said. “You’ve got to get things in order, know what you’re doing, but now it’s like it’s more slowed down for me. Now I can just play fast.
“Once they tell me to let loose, I’m gone.”