CHARLOTTE — Context is everything.
Panthers defensive end Brian Burns is still just 23 years old, but around here, that makes him a bit of an old head.
He recognized that last year, when being a second-year player meant being surrounded by a handful of rookies on the field. But after they all grew up together as the season went along, he can't help but sounding young again when he thinks about what's ahead.
"We had a lot of rookies that needed to step up," he said of the 2020 defense. "They came, they got better each and every week, so by the end of the season, they came along. Going into this season, their second year, they should have their feet wet and be fine now.
"We're up and running now. I don't feel like a lot of things can stop us this year."
That was one of a number of comments from Burns that suggested exactly how enthused he was about a defense that progressed steadily, then added talent this offseason.
"I feel like we're kind of complete now, to be honest," he said at one point.
"Hopefully we can put on a show this year with this defense," he added later. "I'm excited, as if you couldn't tell."
He's not the only one around here, and he's a big part of it.
With rookie safety/linebacker Jeremy Chinn emerging as a playmaker, Burns himself continued to develop, and led the team with 9.0 sacks. There were a number of near-misses as well, and he said he agonized over some of those.
"It's like 50 percent motivation, 50 percent heartbreak," he said. "Knowing I missed out, I missed on a couple that were in my hands, I could have been in double digits (in sacks), easy.
"But it's something to get better at, something to watch, so I can take those building blocks and step on those."
Building was what the Panthers spent the offseason doing, adding pieces that should make Burns more effective.
The obvious addition was pass-rusher Haason Reddick in free agency. Reddick had 12.5 sacks and six forced fumbles for the Cardinals last year, and reunited with the coaching staff that worked with him in college at Temple.
"One, he's going to make me go even harder," Burns said of Reddick. "It's going to be a little competition in the room to see who got the sack the fastest. And he's going to take a lot of attention off me, with the O-line and everything, so they can't just slide to my side.
"They're going to have to pick their poison."
Burns also pointed to the addition of veteran defensive tackle DaQuan Jones, and first-round cornerback Jaycee Horn, noting that interior pressure and coverage ability should raise the level for the entire defense that got better as last year progressed.
But it would be wrong not to point to his own role, as he's embraced his elder status around here, even as he's limited in what he can do during OTAs after offseason shoulder surgery.
"I thought you saw Brian take that role on in the middle of last year," Panthers head coach Matt Rhule said. "I thought Brian did a good job of starting to become more vocal. I think the thing he's doing right now, he's a little banged up, so he can't do everything, but he's really focused on trying to do everything he can to get better at what he can do.
"A lot of guys think of leadership as a position. To me, it's if you're willing to be coached, if you're willing to hold yourself accountable, if you're willing to say 'Hey that's on me,' and if you're willing to work really hard. Brian's doing those things, so I'm sure he's a guy a lot of guys will follow."
Burns said he had some personal goals he'd like to hit this year, but kept those to himself. He acknowledged that he wanted to lead, and kept coming back to his central theme for the day.
"But as a defense, I just want to be completely dominant over the course of the season," he said simply. "I feel like we can do that now."
View photos from Wednesday's OTA practice as the Panthers put in the work at the Atrium Health practice fields.