In the days -- heck, the hours -- before the 2016 NFL Draft, the conversation within Steeler Nation centered around two players, primarily: cornerback William Jackson III and defensive tackle Andrew Billings. Both are among the best at their position. Both play positions of need. Both would be excellent fits in the Steelers' defensive scheme.
Jackson, unfortunately, was gone. He went one pick before the Steelers -- to the Bengals, of all teams -- which really paved the way for Billings to become the next great defensive lineman in Pittsburgh. And so it happened that the Steelers handed in their draft card, and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell took it to the podium and read it. "With the twenty-fifth pick of the 2016 NFL Draft, the Pittsburgh Steelers select..."
That sound you undoubtedly hear is crickets. Not so much because Burns isn't worthy of a late-first round pick (he is). More than likely, it's because you have heard of about a zillion cornerbacks in the lead-up to this draft, and Burns was barely mentioned in passing, if at all.
Don't blame Burns for that. A lot of it is due to the other talented corners in this class: Jalen Ramsey, Vernon Hargreaves, Jackson, Mackenzie Alexander and Eli Apple. Burns was projected by a lot of people to go in the three to four picks after the Steelers' selection. Most of that, though, depended on Jackson still being available at 25. Thanks to the Bengals, that wasn't in the cards.
Burns certainly wasn't the sexy pick. With Jackson gone, that would have been Billings. I rode the Billings train hard, just about from the moment the Steelers' plane left Denver in January. He's a borderline freakish athlete. But the fact that the Steelers, and then the Packers, and a host of other teams all passed on him tells me there was something teams knew that the rest of us didn't. Of course, A'Shawn Robinson is still available too, as I write this, so maybe it's true that teams just aren't valuing nose tackles much anymore. The only reason the Packers took Kenny Clark is because longtime anchor B.J. Raji is sorta-kinda retired, and left them with a gaping hole. For Green Bay, Clark is the massive body they need to fill that equally massive gap in their lineup.
But back to Burns, because that's what matters now. From a measurables perspective, Burns looks great. He's 6'-0" and 193 pounds, and has a frame that could hold another 10 pounds without hurting his game. And when you look at very specific aspects of his game, he looks great. He's physical in press coverage, and he sticks with receivers well. I'll come back to that in a second, though, because it's not as rosy as it should be. He's also a willing tackler -- not necessarily a good tackler, but he doesn't seem to shy away from contact.
The problems with Burns start with scheme, and end with technique. He's more of a press-man corner, while the Steelers run more zone and off-man than any other team. Immediately, the fit is less than ideal. However, my eyes show him being better in zone coverage than he's gotten credit for. It's certain aspects of technique that bite him, like a weak backpedal and stiff hips. Oddly, the hips issue typically works more against man-cover corners, and that's what I meant about things not being totally rosy. Yes, he sticks to receivers well, but more often than not, that's a result of his world-class speed and athleticism allowing him to make up momentarily lost ground.
The good news? These are fixable issues. The bad news is that his contributions will be less immediate than most fans want, especially in light of last year's coverage issues. But what he does give the team is a truly good press-man corner, which opens up options as he becomes more familiar with the defense.
That doesn't make the pick sit entirely well with me, though. There's a lot of boom potential here, but also a lot of bust, too. With some improved technique, he could be a true shutdown corner, but that all depends on how much effort he is willing to give. I want to be optimistic about it, and he's worthy of the 25th pick. But with guys like Billings, Vernon Butler, A'Shawn Robinson and Kenny Clark available at another position of need, this pick feels a bit like the team had their heart set on a cornerback in round one, all else be damned. It sounds weird to say that he's worth the draft position, but maybe not worth the pick, but it's how this choice feels.
I hope I'm wrong.
We all hope I'm wrong.