Pittsburgh Steelers’ 2016 first-round draft pick Artie Burns enters a promising situation in his rookie season. Where young Steelers’ athletes were once put in a position to learn now and start later, they are tasked with making an impact now.
This especially holds true with the cornerback position. With the transitional period that is occurring in the Steelers’ secondary, the addition of a first round talent was absolutely necessary. With a dangerously high upside, Burns brings quality talent from the University of Miami.
Ross Cockrell performed admirably during his time on the field in 2015, but it could be expected that he takes on a limited role depending how well Burns performs in training camp and the preseason.
A similar situation occurred with Vince Williams at the beginning of the 2014 season. Injury forced Williams to start nearly every game in 2013, but the Steelers’ drafting of Ryan Shazier and his immediate addition to the starting lineup dashed the expectations of many that Williams was a long-term answer.
Burns’ immediate impact on the field is a must for the progression of the Steelers’ secondary. The organization went too long without properly addressing the cornerback position, and the years of piecing together a depth chart with late-round picks and free agents finally stopped working.
Now that the Steelers have their first-round talent, it is imperative that the organization utilize him immediately. They can ill afford to wait until they believe he is properly groomed to see extensive time on the field.
The Steelers must be willing to take the risk of starting a rookie early in the season. It is a risk that could potentially pay dividends, such as it did for the Kansas City Chiefs and Marcus Peters. Peters established himself as one of the best young defensive backs in the game and instantly upgraded the Chiefs’ defense.
Of course, it will take extensive training during the offseason and solid play during the preseason to prove that he can handle the responsibilities that come with earning, and keeping, a starting position. Luckily for Burns, he has the best wide receiver in the league to prepare himself with.
Lining up against Antonio Brown in practice each day will no doubt serve as a great training tool for Burns as he prepares to claim a starting position. He has had the opportunity to do so in OTAs and, according to ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler, had this to say about his experience:
"“You can’t panic. You always have to stay cool no matter what situation you are in. He came up on me fast. I just have to trust my eyes, trust my training. To be out here covering him, it helps my level of game rise up.”"
Getting to know the differences in the types of receivers in the NFL will come with time, but Burns has perhaps the best receiver corps in the league to gain as much experience as he possibly can before the time comes to take the field against an opposing team this summer.
It is vital to the future of the secondary that the Steelers prepare Burns for his role as the future leader of the cornerback position as soon as possible. While it may seem too early to make bold assumptions, Burns has the ability to be the best cornerback coming out of his class.
With William Gay getting long in the tooth and Cockrell likely to hit the open market in 2017 if he has a productive year, preparing Burns for a full-time starting position would be a smart move on behalf of the Steelers’ organization.
The Steelers are banking heavily on the fact that Burns has the ability to become something special on their defense. They made the same attempt at revitalizing the linebacker corps with Jarvis Jones in 2013, but it is well documented how that transpired as Jones enters his fourth season.
The Steelers will face off against the Washington Redskins, Cincinnati Bengals, Philadelphia Eagles, and Kansas City Chiefs in their first four games of 2016. If Gay is tasked with handling number one receivers, this will pair Burns with Josh Doctson, Tyler Boyd, Nelson Agholor, and Albert Wilson.
Burns will face a pair of top-tier rookies in his first two weeks in the NFL, a former first round pick in Agholor in week three, and a wildcard in Wilson who averaged nearly thirteen yards a catch last season. Certainly a challenge, but Burns can prove he deserves a starting role if he steps up to it.
The development of Artie Burns will begin a new period success in the Steelers’ secondary. It will no doubt be an exciting experience watching him transition from a pick that many believed was a consolation prize after watching William Jackson III go to Cincinnati, into a potential shutdown corner on the defense for years to come.