By Sam McPherson
Name: Artie Burns
Weight: 193 lbs.
School: Miami (FL)
Draft Pick: 25th overall in First Round
Usually, when an NFL team hands a $10 million contract to a first-round draft pick, that player is expected to start right away. That won’t be the case with Pittsburgh Steelers rookie cornerback Artie Burns, chosen 25th overall in the draft last April. The former University of Miami (FL) standout has the potential to be a star in the league, but the Steelers will be patient with Burns at the start of his career.
The first-round pick is currently slated primarily for nickel and dime defense duties in the early going of this NFL career, and the team hopes Burns will grow as the 2016 regular season progresses. Since his big contract has an option for a fifth season, the Pittsburgh organization is banking on accelerated growth for their first-round pick and a long-term payoff with his contract.
As a junior with the Hurricanes in 2015, Burns intercepted six passes, returning them for 34 yards. He also registered five passes defended on the season in 12 games overall. For his three-year career combined at Miami, Burns totaled 65 solo tackles, 28 assisted tackles, two sacks, seven INTs, 14 passes defended and one fumble recovery.
While he didn’t return any kicks in his junior season, Burns also added 11 kickoff returns in his first two years with the Hurricanes for a 26.2-yard return average. Clearly, the rookie has a lot of athleticism, and the Steelers definitely liked what they saw on tape enough to make him a first-round pick—despite criticism from draft experts around the league who thought Pittsburgh reached for the selection. In addition to his football experience, Burns was the Atlantic Coast Conference 60-meter hurdles champion in 2014.
The Steelers project to start veteran William Gay and 24-year-old Ross Cockrell at corner right now. Gay isn’t a stellar player at this point in his career, but age 31, he continues to bring a veteran presence to the Pittsburgh secondary. Cockrell started seven games for the Steelers in 2015, and he is in his third NFL season. The position isn’t a strong one for the team, so Burns will be expected to contribute more and more as he learns the NFL game and adjusts to its speed and sophistication. However, Burns hasn’t been able to stay on the field during training camp so far as he deals with a nagging thigh injury.
Two other CBs on the roster will compete with Burns for playing time in the pass-defense specialty packages. Senquez Golson, the 2015 second-round pick, was projected to be the third corner, but went down with a Lisfranc injury that will likely cause him to miss another full season. Doran Grant was last year’s fourth round pick and could see more time with how thin the team is at the position right now. Gay is the elder statesman of the group, but it’s clear Pittsburgh has a lot of young talent the club is hoping to groom for the future at the position.
In that sense, the financial commitment the Steelers have made to Burns is a significant indicator that the team expects him to be “The Man” down the line. Pittsburgh is known for its defensive prowess, although that reputation has suffered in the last few seasons as the Steelers have declined on that side of the ball. After fielding the No. 1 defense in the league for the 2012 season, the Steel Curtain dropped to 13th overall in 2013, 18th in 2014 and 21st in 2015. Burns is projected to be part of the roster upheaval that reverses that declining trend for the Steelers.
As the 2016 regular season progresses, look for Burns to get more and more playing time if he’s able to stay healthy. With the guidance of Head Coach Mike Tomlin, Defensive Coordinator Keith Butler and defensive backs coach Carnell Lake, Pittsburgh’s selection of Burns with the 25th overall pick may soon turn out to look like a huge steal for the Steelers.
Sam McPherson is a freelance writer covering baseball, football, basketball, golf, hockey and fantasy sports for CBS, AXS and Examiner. He also is an Ironman triathlete and certified triathlon coach.