About 15 months ago, the Steelers drafted cornerback Artie Burns in the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft, much to the chagrin of many fans. The pick was met here, at Behind the Steel Curtain, with a nearly even, three-way mix of joy, disdain, and cries of, “...who?”
It wasn’t until just about 24 hours before the draft that Burns was even meaningfully connected as a possible pick for the Steelers. The other cornerbacks connected with Pittsburgh — Eli Apple and William Jackson III, mostly — were gone, with Jackson being taken one pick prior by the rival Cincinnati Bengals. Some in Steeler Nation saw it as an intentional slight by the Bengals, as ridiculous as that notion may seem.
I, myself, felt Burns was a solid pick, but questioned if it would be the right pick. The answer, as it turned out, was a resounding “heck, yeah!”
As Burns settles into his second training camp at St. Vincent College, three main story lines have emerged. The first is that he is seeing a lot more man coverage looks in year two. The second is that the plan appears to be to have him shadow teams’ top receivers this year, a role that was last filled by former cornerback Ike Taylor, with great success.
The third is a continuation — perhaps even a mild reversal — of a storyline from his first camp. A year ago, Burns spent most of camp being beaten by Antonio Brown in ways that would make a rented mule think, “wow, that’s harsh.”
Fast-forward to 2017, and the story is a little different. Burns is still giving up catches to Brown but, then again, so does everyone else who tries to cover him. Every. Single. One. The difference is that Brown is making most of those catches despite excellent coverage. Getting outplayed by Brown is slightly more certain than death or taxes. And, according to the reports out of camp, Burns is actually getting his share of wins when covering the guy who is almost universally viewed as the best receiver in football right now. That, in and of itself, is a pretty great story.
Burns had a rocky start in 2016, but he finished well, and that’s about the best you can hope for from any rookie who eventually becomes a starter before their inaugural season draws to a close. In fact, despite starting just three games last season, the young corner ended up with the 20th-most passes defended, at 13. No one ahead of him on the list had fewer than nine starts. His three interceptions were good for a tie for 31st place. Again, he had the fewest starts in the group, by far. And his 51 tackles ranked 18th among all cornerbacks.
In 2017, Burns is going to be counted on as the number-one corner for the Steelers, a role he both relishes, and has earned. For the record, no rookie cornerback had more interceptions than Burns’ three. Only two other rookie corners — Hargreaves and Jalen Ramsey — had more tackles, and only Ramsey had more pass breakups.
Simply put, Burns came in with a general acknowledgement that he was raw and would take time to develop, and ended the season with one of the best all-around performances for a cornerback, at least in key statistics. He had his bad moments — missed tackles, blown assignments — but he learned from them and improved. Now, just a half a year since his first season ended, he’s back in Pittsburgh, ramping up for his second year.
This time, though, he’s being counted on as a leader. As long as he keeps winning an occasional matchup with Brown during training camp, the expectations will only grow.
He looks more than capable of living up to them.