CHARLOTTE – General manager Marty Hurney wasn't confident that Brian Burns would still be on the board when the Panthers went on the clock for the 16th selection of the 2019 NFL Draft.
But when Burns was, Hurney and Co. were confident about what they should do.
"There were times in this process when I didn't think he'd be there, but he was and we're thrilled to have him," Hurney said moments after the Panthers selected the versatile defensive end out of Florida State. "The way it broke – with three quarterbacks going in front of us and two linebackers – we felt good about the guys that with we had lined up, we were going to be able to get a good football player."
Actually, the Panthers have reason to believe they may have acquired a great football player.
"This guy has a huge ceiling," Hurney said. "He's got some elite skill-set traits that are hard to find. He needs to develop as he grows and his body matures – he needs to get stronger – but you can't coach some of the traits he has. The speed. The length. The change of direction."
And, with head coach Ron Rivera eyeing a change of direction for the defense, Burns fits the bill.
"You see him not just on the right side. You see him on the left side. You see in the two-point (stance). You see him in the three-point (stance)," Rivera said. "A couple of times you see him back off the ball and drop into coverage, which I know Marty isn't a big fan of but that he'll have to get used to. He's a heck of a football player that has enough athleticism to be a part of what we're trying to do."
The comment directed at Hurney got a laugh from the media and from the general manager. Rivera has hinted this offseason that the Panthers will aim to keep opposing offenses off-balance with more hybrid looks in 2019, and Burns along with veteran free agent addition Bruce Irvin could be key to that kind of approach.
"I've watched him flip his hips in coverage. He can do that," Hurney said. "We get a guy who we think has unique athletic ability."
Rivera watched lots of tape featuring Burns, and he liked what he saw – and loved that he saw something to like every time.
"When you put the tape on – pick any of the games they played – and I'll find you a play he makes that has an impact," Rivera said. "That's what you want. You don't want guys who makes sacks with 30, 40-point leads. You want to see a guy make an impact in the first half, when the game is in question. That's what he does."
Rivera said signs that the pass rush would need to be rebuilt began to surface after the special 2015 season. That was the beginning of the end for Charles Johnson – the second-most prolific sack artist in franchise history – and then in 2017 Carolina brought back all-time sack leader Julius Peppers but at the end of his remarkable road.
Mario Addison developed into one of the league's most underappreciated sack artists, but the rush needs reinforcements.
"We talk about this being a passing league, and the defensive answer to that is you have to be able to get pressure on the passer. That was one of the needs we wanted to address coming into the offseason," Hurney said. "We signed Bruce Irvin for that reason. And those pass rushers, those defensive linemen, you have to rotate them, have to give them plays off so they're fresh. You want a group of guys you can rotate in and out so they can go hard every play. But one thing Brian did at Florida State was play almost every play.
"He just gives us another guy on the edge. Now we feel like we have some guys in the rotation that can help rush the passer."