It doesn’t seem to be very often that Pro Football Focus ever has much of anything good to say about the Pittsburgh Steelers’ rookie players. It seems as though every year they come away thoroughly unimpressed with their first-round draft picks during their rookie seasons. That has certainly been the case in recent years, though it would probably be fair to say that it may well have been deserved.
The 2016 season has proven to be an exception, and it probably should come as a surprise. Back at the end of the first day of the 2016 NFL Draft, PFF listed the Steelers’ selection of cornerback Artie Burns with the 25th-overall selection as the fifth-worst move of the first round. Incidentally, three of the five players on that list have had rookie seasons that the site has complimented.
Back then, the site wrote that “Burns’ tape doesn’t do much to suggest that he is worth a first-round pick” and that his six interceptions were not “necessarily indicative of a high level of performance”. While he “graded out right around average”, their biggest concern was his “lack of feel in zone coverage”.
Flash forward several months, and Burns has been the starting right outside cornerback for half the season, logging over 500 snaps in total. He leads the team with three interceptions and also has 12 passes defensed. He makes mistakes, of course, but he is in the starting lineup for a reason.
Summing up his year, in a recent article looking at each first-round draft pick, the site writes that “no rookie cornerback has surrendered more touchdowns than Artie Burns, but he also has three picks, five pass breakups [he is credited with 12, officially], and allowed fewer than 60 percent of the passes thrown into his coverage to be caught”.
It is noted that the 95-yard touchdown that he allowed to Mike Wallace in his first start of his career half a season back “skews his numbers”, and the conclusion is that he “has shown marked improvement over the second half of the season”.
Even in retrospect, we probably shouldn’t be too hard on the site. I’m sure if the majority of commenters here go back and revisit what they wrote about the Burns selection right after it was made, they would see that they were probably on board. I wasn’t too high on the pick, either. I don’t think any of the staff particularly cared for it.
PFF gives him a 76.3 overall grade, which was the 12th-best grade that they gave to any first-round draft pick, and that is noting that he improved his grade over the course of the past several games. In another entry, they note that cornerback is one of the most difficult positions for a rookie to play.
The Steelers are doing a lot of things to make Burns’ job easier, and he still has a lot of room to grow, but I think it would be fair to say that his rookie season has gone better than any reasonable post-draft expectation would have predicted.