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Brian Burns ready to add to his game, and his sack totals

Brian Burns

CHARLOTTE — There are numbers that follow Brian Burns around.

Of course, since it's an offseason, the Panthers defensive end is getting asked about his weight (he's used to it).

But after making his first Pro Bowl and that game-changing trip to Las Vegas, he's also haunted by a pair of nines — the sack totals for 2020 and 2021 on the back of his football card.

Being stuck just short of double-digit sacks the last couple of years bothers him, and he doesn't mind admitting it.

"Very. It's a very big deal to me," Burns said Wednesday. "It's been pissing me off to be at nine these past two years.

"One thing about it, at the end of the day, you can't control it, so that's how I take it. But that's something I've been pushing towards since I've been in the league, and it's not going to stop now."

Coaches will always warn about setting a fixed number as a goal, because sacks aren't always the most reliable indicator of pass-rushing success. But it's the pushing toward improvement that the Panthers love seeing from the 2018 first-round pick. That's why they're comfortable picking up his fifth-year option, and that's why they've indicated that extending his deal is a priority.

"Brian is a mature man. He just has to control what he can control," Panthers head coach Matt Rhule said. "That's his stance, his get-off, his pass-rush moves. He's really working. . . . People don't know, Brian, he stays here in the building as long as anyone does, taking care of his body, and he's really, really diligent about his process.

"It's good to see a guy who goes to the Pro Bowl and isn't satisfied."

Burns has talked in the past about the difficulty of the constant attention, the double-teams, the chips, the extra blockers he has to face. But to Rhule's point, that's what elite players get. So if Burns wants to be one, he better be ready for it.

"He has the ability, he's going to get a lot of attention," Rhule said. "But that's what great players do. They produce in spite of it."

Burns is hoping his 2022 is even more productive, thanks to some of the lessons he learned and the contact he added to his phone this offseason.

While at the Pro Bowl, he spent some time with Cardinals veteran Chandler Jones, who has become of the league's most dangerous — and consistent — players at his position. Jones has 107.5 sacks in 10 seasons, and has hit double digits seven times in the last nine years. Jones was hurt the other two years.

So Burns latched onto him, got his number, filed away the lessons, and started making a list of questions to ask.

Like the similarly-built Jones, the length to disrupt passers and speed is clearly there with Burns. Turning it into something more is the next goal. That's why his focus is on the small points of the game, his footwork and first step, all the lessons he can learn from a player with Jones' track record.

"Honestly, I think I'm not even there yet from a technician's point of view. I'm very far from it," Burns said. "A lot of things I've done is because of god-given ability, but there's a lot of things I can work on as far as my technique.

"I feel like there's so much more, so much further I can go with having Chan in my back pocket now. Being able to talk to him or hit him up about certain things, I think I can take my game to another level from a technique standpoint."

Brian Burns, Paul Pasqualoni

He also has the benefit of working with veteran defensive line coach Paul Pasqualoni now. He's Burns' fourth position coach in as many years, but Burns views that as a positive. In the past, the Panthers have given Burns a broader view of the defense, and now he's able to apply those lessons in more minute detail.

"Old school. But I like it," Burns said of the 72-year-old former Syracuse head coach. "He's real intense on the field. Seeing him off the field, you wouldn't think that, but he's got a lot of energy on the field. He's old-school and intense.

"Every year, I had a new position coach, so every year is different. Some guys are big on scheme and the overall picture. But he's more detailed on what you have to do and exactly where your eyes should be, so that's different. It's different, but I see it in a positive light. I get the best of both worlds, like the overall linebacker experience and how everything should fit, but now I'm back with a traditional D-line coach that's only focused on D-line things, and the true technique of my position. So it's good that I can do both."

For an old-school coach, Pasqualoni approves of the decidedly new-school pass-rusher, it appears.

"Brian works," the veteran assistant said. "He comes in, he works like a pro, takes care of himself, studies, he's smart, he takes good notes, he asks good questions."

He's also competitive, joking that he was fresh off beating teammate Jaycee Horn on the ping pong table before his interview.

Asked if he was one of the team's top table tennis players, he laughed and said: "No, but I find a way to win. Ask Jaycee Horn. I'm going to post a picture of the paddle he broke when he was mad."

Brian Burns

For all the laughs — and there are plenty — Burns is also showing that he's serious about staying in the 255-pound range. As a naturally lean player, Burns has often struggled to keep weight on over the course of a year, but he laughed and acknowledged that, yes, he is a little bigger this offseason.

"Little bit. You know that, every year. Y'all write the stories, you've seen it. 'He's bigger this year,'" Burns said with a grin. "Not necessarily do I care about getting bigger, but the main thing is to be strong. I don't want to walk in here at 270 and not strong. I want to come in at 255 solid, and strong with it. I'd rather do that than be hella heavy and weak."

He's hoping that if he keeps that 255 on and continues to work, he can make those nines disappear this year as well. And if he does, an even bigger set of numbers could follow.

View some of the best photos of the top players on the Panthers defensive line in 2021, including Pro Bowler Brian Burns.

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