Much talk has been made over the Pittsburgh Steelers' first round selection in this year's NFL Draft in cornerback Artie Burns from Miami. The junior who led the ACC with six interceptions in 2015 had a projected value that ranged from the first to the third round according to the various analysts that put pre-draft grades on his profile.
Ultimately Pittsburgh seemed content with their selection of Burns due to his raw athleticism, tenacity, young age of just turning 21 and high ceiling. To look at that ceiling, we dissect various plays from his NCAA career.
Burns is quick on comeback routes
One thing Burns seemed to have in abundance throughout his highlights are plays in which he was playing a receiver tight and reacting on comeback routes. There were numerous examples of Burns' ability to break on a route and either intercept or breakup a pass that was thrown to his man after a route that was intended to be a safe option underneath. Virginia Tech was trying to mount a late game comeback when Burns virtually ended their hopes by jumping this pass.
Tight coverage was Burns' calling card in the NCAA, as we will continue to show you below.
Uses hands often in short coverage
In many of Burns' scouting reports you could read that he was a grabby cornerback that often used his hands both to locate receivers and to keep himself in position to contest passes. While that can lead to penalties in the NFL, it can also help with stopping quick routes in the five yard bump zone which the defense has. Notice how on this third down he throws his first hand to the inside shoulder of his assignment in order to protect against an immediate throw and direct the wide receiver to the outside. He does a good job of using his hands just enough to keep the receiver in his range without breaking any rules.
When the pass is thrown, Burns is already there and can pry the ball out of his opponent's hands.
Tight coverage twice in the clutch
On the very next play, Duke tried to convert the fourth down by attacking Burns again, a decision which would come back to bite them. Burns did not use a jab at the line of scrimmage this time, but instead shields off the receiver from the inside of the field in an effort to make any short route intended to just convert a crucial fourth down a futile effort.
Both times Burns played tight man-to-man coverage in a key situation for his team and showed that he was comfortable playing in that situation and battling with receivers in tight spaces. This would be an added dimension for Pittsburgh's secondary and could be a major asset in red zone defense situations where an offense with a larger receiver presents a dual threat of a fade route option or a quick cut to the inside for an easy throw.
Consistently contests the ball
While most highlight tapes on draft day showcased Burns' interception against the Pittsburgh Panthers, I felt this play was more impressive because of how Burns reacted to the receiver's route and came from behind his man to contest the ball and turn an easy first down play into an incomplete pass.
Burns' quick acceleration is something which could be a nightmare for quarterbacks. If he can run with top-end NFL caliber receivers enough to allow him to make plays on the ball like he did here, this could take away many of the plays that often hurt Pittsburgh in the short passing game.
You will see in most of his plays that when he is in position he often finds the ball and contests it enough to force an incomplete pass if he does not outright intercept the ball. Good ball skills mixed with a quick burst can provide an extra dynamic to the defense.
Can win jump ball battles
Remember when we talked about how he could contest fade routes in the red zone? That will come from his ability to locate the ball and attack it at its highest point. While this play was not an end zone fade route, it showcases his ability to extend himself high enough to win jump ball situations.
More on ball skills
Burns' ball skills are one of the biggest reasons we like him in the Film Room. Burns' seems to have the eyes to locate the ball regardless of it being an off-target pass. While he does not get his second foot down (not a problem in NCAA) he does display good hands in snagging the ball off his back-shoulder.
One thing that you can see which is a consistent issue with Burns is when he plays off receivers and does not display proper fundamentals in his back pedal and locating receivers without the use of his hands. The receiver escapes him on this play and it led to a touchdown, but this is part of the raw part of his game. When it comes to playing fundamental football that does not extend from an initial battle at the line of scrimmage, Burns seems to falter.
While many might think this should be extremely alarming to Steelers fans as Pittsburgh often plays with its cornerbacks well off the line of scrimmage, it would be prudent to expect Burns to be allowed to play receivers differently considering he is the first cornerback selected in the first round by the franchise since Chad Scott in the 1990's. It should also be expected that defensive backs coach, Carnell Lake, will be working hard with Burns to smooth out his rough edges. Lake often has fallen under criticism for the secondary's major issues, but honest criticism would have to factor in that he has not had a cornerback selected in the first two rounds for him to develop.
Lake's work to develop William Gay from an inconsistent free agent cornerback to a dependable cover defensive back that did not allow a touchdown during the 2015-2016 regular season should be indicative of the fact that he knows what he is doing. Let's see where he has both Senquez Golson and Artie Burns playing in a couple years before we pass a full judgment on his coaching ability.
Explosiveness in making tackles
It's always a plus to be able to bring the boom as a defensive back when you're a Pittsburgh Steeler, so we figured it would be fun to showcase a play in which Burns did just that. Burns leads with his shoulder and drives through his target to force an incomplete pass on the big hit.
What we could not show you were the other plays in which Burns showed that he was solid against the run, could shed blockers and more examples of his deficiencies in coverage. Rest assured, there is plenty to be excited about when looking forward to Burns' potential. He possesses the raw skills and the tenacity of a good defender that are harder to teach than some of the basic fundamentals which he will work to refine in the NFL.
Burns' potential rests in his will power to be a playmaker in the secondary. Many of his highlights are him coming from different positions while covering his assignment and aggressively attacking the ball. Polish that kind of tenacity up with NFL caliber professional standards and Burns could easily be a playmaker in the NFL.