INDIANAPOLIS — “The pass rush is always going to be a cornerstone for us.”
That’s what Indianapolis Colts general manager Chris Ballard said at his end-of-season press conference in January, giving fans an idea of what to expect this offseason.
The truth is, even if the Colts had a dozen high-end pass rushers, the search would still be on for the 13th. Whether that comes from free agency, the NFL Draft or both, no one but the Colts knows the plan.
This 2019 NFL Draft class is a pond stocked with talented interior and edge pass rushers, from the potential No. 1-overall pick all the way into Day 3. That’s great news for the Colts, who are currently slated to pick at No. 26 overall, because they could potentially get a pass rusher normally picked in the top 15 to fall into their lap where they sit in the latter portion of the first round.
One of those top pass rushers in Florida State’s Brian Burns.
At first glance, you notice Burns’ slender frame, but at the same time you see his tremendous length as well. That helps him with gaining separation from blockers, getting to quarterbacks and runners who may otherwise be out of reach, and batting down passes.
While Burns’ frame is lacking in bulk, he's not lacking in speed and movement ability. He is able to get a quick jump off of the snap, routinely being the defender first across the line of scrimmage. Burns moves in open space and changes direction smoothly and with ease.
With space, Burns has good short-area quickness and hand usage to set up blockers. If the blocker doesn’t square him up and get their hands on him, Burns can juke or slap/rip their arms away.
"I pretty much do a lot of my moves off of speed. I've got a lot of ways to win. I feel like I can win inside, outside, I have a lot of counters," Burns told reporters on Saturday at the NFL Scouting Combine. "And then I really wanna work on (converting) my speed to power — that's a big thing I've been working on. My long-arm's a big thing I've been working on, I think that's why I put on so much weight, to really cope with that side of my game."
The added weight, Burns says, is 21 pounds since the end of the 2018 season, and he hasn't noticed any change in how he moves. He said that he is comfortable right now around 249-250 pounds and that he feels he can put on more weight if necessary.
Burns is one of this class’ most creative pass rushers, featuring plenty of moves in his repertoire including a good swipe and rip as well as a spin move. He even did the DeMarcus Ware fake spin move against Miami.
If a rusher is going to be fast and athletic then you almost have to ensure that he has plenty of bend to get low around the edge and duck the tackle. You can check that box for Burns as well.
Defensive linemen are often beneficiaries of circumstance, making plays in the backfield while unblocked. However, if Burns gets into the backfield unblocked, he doesn’t fly in recklessly toward who he thinks is going to have the ball. He stays patient and waits to see what’s going to happen, still making the play whether it’s a run or a play-fake. Florida State would even occasionally use Burns to spy opposing quarterbacks who were more fleet of foot.
Looking at areas for improvement for Burns, his narrow frame obviously brings positives and negatives.
For starters, his tape shows a lack of strength, almost always winning with athleticism and finesse instead of power. That occasionally gets him hung up on blocks or washed out in the trenches. Can he add more mass and functional play strength at the next level?
And while Burns is patient when approaching the backfield, he can occasionally be fooled by the play-action or options. While getting more disciplined in that area, the same can be said for when he’s in pursuit of his target in the backfield. He sometimes overshoots instead of squaring up the quarterback or ball carrier.
FIT WITH THE COLTS
The Combine gives Ballard and the Colts a chance to get in front of and meet with Burns and this year’s other rookie pass rushers.
"I mean rushers come in different forms. Some rush with speed. Some rush with power. Some rush with instinct. I think it comes in different flavors of what you’re looking for,” Ballard said. “We would like speed. I mean that’s how our defense is built — explosion and speed.”
That’s what Burns brings to the table: athleticism, explosion and speed. But he’s not just an edge rusher. He is capable of playing the run as well.
Burns, who is only going to be freshly 21 when the draft arrives, measures comparably to Colts 2018 second-round draft pick, Kemoko Turay.
Burns is 6-4 ¾ and 249 pounds while Turay measured in at 6-4 ⅝ and 253 pounds. Burns’ arms measure 33 ⅞” long with an 83 ⅝” wingspan, and Turay has 33 ⅜” arms with an 80 ⅛” wingspan.
Burns’ wingspan measured in the 95th percentile among edge rushers, potentially making him a terror coming off the edge for quarterbacks who suddenly find themselves no longer holding onto the football.
Burns has been constantly working at his craft and can tell when he's getting the best of blockers.
"I feel like if I'm pushing a guy up the field a lot in the game, I feel like he would be vulnerable to an inside spin or inside counter," Burns said.
"Most guys are afraid of my speed, and they start to kick, and they start to really — they get vertical, I'll put it that way," Burns explained. "And I feel like once they turn their shoulders, it's over."
Personnel-wise the Colts are in decent shape in terms of the pass rush. This offseason, only Margus Hunt and Geneo Grissom are free agents, but then they have Jabaal Sheard’s contract due to end in 2020. Moves must be made to ensure that the Colts not only don’t miss a beat in their pressure, but that they also improve in that area.
Adding and grooming players like Burns addresses that need.