SPARTANBURG – Contract talks have carried on between the Panthers and star outside linebacker Brian Burns. But the lack of a deal on reporting day wouldn't keep the two-time Pro Bowler away from Spartanburg, as he participated in Carolina's first day of practice Wednesday.
He'd been around offseason workouts in Charlotte, more like an extra coach than a starter while recovering from an April ankle procedure.
Cleared to go for training camp, Burns didn't want to spend more time away from an all-new defense under Ejiro Evero, even while he waits for an extension agreement.
He knows he'll play an integral role in this defense, and he believes in their potential.
"I was going to show up," Burns said – with assurance in his tone – when asked if there was ever a doubt he'd come to Wofford for camp. "I would say mainly just because I missed it. I missed being with my defense.
"And I kind of feel like what we've got going is bigger than – I don't want to say it's bigger than my individual goals, because those matter, of course – but I feel like what we've got building is bigger than that. And I feel like I'm a key piece to what we need to get done. So I feel like I need to be here. Whether or not I'm going through negotiations, or whatever."
Burns is entering the final year of his rookie deal, worth $16 million for his fifth-year option. The Panthers always have the option of using the franchise tag on his next year, though it's something neither side would prefer.
General manager Scott Fitterer said Tuesday that conversations with Burns' agent had been positive, but there wasn't a timeline or date set for the contract's completion.
"They've been good conversations," Fitterer said. "It's not like we have to say it has to be done by this time or that time. We just keep talking. And when the time's right, and we make a deal that's right for him and right for us, that'd be great.
"He's a big part of the organization. We love having Brian around. He's really grown as a leader. Not just as a player but as a leader. He's one of those guys you just love being around."
And, at the moment, it would appear that Burns' focus centers around making his impact on the practice field.
He's undoubtedly wanted in Evero's new 3-4 scheme, installed while Burns was recovering from the ankle procedure and in need of another suitable pass-rusher to emerge opposite him.
Suited up in his new No. 0 (the first Panther to don the digit) and a helmet visor adorned with the word "SPIDA" (a nod to his Spider-Man fandom and nickname), Burns was hard to miss from an aesthetics standpoint. But he was also hard to miss from his physical presence.
Head coach Frank Reich said he and assistant head coach/running backs coach Duce Staley chatted about Burns when they got a glimpse at what he looked like during team drills in the first training camp practice.
"All of a sudden, you look out there, and you see Brian Burns standing on the end of the line of scrimmage, and you're like, 'Oh, we better be ready to play ball,'" Reich said. "Good thing we've got Ickey (left tackle Ikem Ekwonu) out there."
Burns turned 25 in April, but he's easily a seasoned veteran and vocal leader on a young defense – much like linebacker Shaq Thompson, who's been here since 2015.
But Burns is still working toward beating his old all-nighter habit, one that he discussed last year when he said he'd comfortably stay up into the wee hours of the morning and wake up around noon.
This season, Thompson has been his "buddy" for 5:45 a.m. wake-ups and workouts, and Burns said his sleep habits are still a "work in progress."
"We're gonna get it done this season; I'm going to stick to my routine," Burns said. "We're going to try to pull a couple of other guys together to come with us. I feel like it's just another step of really building our brotherhood."
The first step of building that brotherhood is being here, which Burns was determined to do regardless of negotiations behind the scenes.
He wants to be part of something special, and he's ready to lead it.
"We've got to prove it," Burns said. "I feel like we've been getting disrespected for a minute, which is understandable. It's cool, I mean, but at the end of the day, we've got to go out there and prove it. And we've got to prove that we are as good as we are on paper."
View photos of players at the first day of training camp practice at Wofford.