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Saturday Spotlight: Artie Burns

Throughout the 2021 NFL season, we’ll spotlight a Bears player in a weekly column. This week, we’ll take an in-depth look at cornerback and special teamer Artie Burns.

Chicago Bears v Tennessee Titans Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

Name: Artie Burns

Position: Cornerback

Number: 25

Age: 26

Time with Bears: 2nd Season

The Past:

“Things are always going to be tough, that’s just life. I just take everything one day at a time and make sure I keep grinding.”

Artie Burns knows what it takes to step up.

When Burns was just 11 years old, his father told him he’d “be right back” as he left the living room. As a result of events that night, the senior Burns is now serving a prison term for drug trafficking. It could be another 6 years behind bars. The Junior Burns became the man of the house as he took on added responsibilities of caring for younger siblings.

In high school, Artie began making a name for himself through football, and ranked as a 4-star prospect for college. He received offers from the premier NCAA programs in the entire country. Alabama, Florida State, LSU, USC. All these schools and more wanted Burns to play for them.

A standout high school football player and record-breaking track-and-field star, Burns chose “The U” as his home for college.

It didn’t take long for Burns to get involved in the Hurricanes gameplan, finding time in 11 of 13 games on defense and kick returns in his freshman season. He had a highlight blocked field goal which was returned over 60 yards for a touchdown against Miami and he forced a fumble in Miami’s bowl game against Louisville. The team went 9-4 in 2013 and Burns logged 17 total tackles, 1 INT, 3 pass breakups, and an average of 26.1 yards per kick return.

Burns stepped into a starting role his sophomore season, in a rematch with Louisville for the season opener. He recorded 3 tackles. While Burns didn’t pick off any passes that year, he was a pesky defender who broke up 3 passes in one game against Cincinatti and 6 pass breakups on the year. Miami took a step backward as a program in 2014, falling to 6-7, but the sophomore was growing into an NFL prospect and logged 40 total tackles, 2.0 TFLs, and 2.0 sacks and 1 kick return for 27 yards. He had his mother to cheer him on.

Burns had a stellar 2015 season, raising his play from a starter on a good program to one of the nation’s top cornerbacks. He started every contest he was active for the Hurricanes, and hit the ground running with an interception in the season opener. His starting role on defense took him away from kick returns, but the athlete he was showed on the highlights. Against Virginia Tech, he was able to snag two interceptions, and later recovered a fumble against Clemson.

But in late October that year, tragedy struck. Artie Burns’ mother Dana Smith passed away of a heart attack at age 44. Burns took custody of his two younger brothers when his mother passed, and he also had a son of his own. He wasn’t just a kid in college, he was stepping up into a leadership role for multiple blood relatives.

If you ask Burns, he still has his mother to cheer him on. She was with him as he finished his junior season at Miami. She was with him when he was named 2nd Team All-ACC on the year. She was with him through the draft process, and she was there when he was selected.

“With the 25th pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, the Pittsburgh Steelers select: Artie Burns. Defensive Back. Miami.”

His scouting profile in that draft coverage was of a guy who had all the promise in the world: incredible athlete, fast, can make all the plays you need from a starting cornerback in the NFL. Still, the word that kept coming up is “raw” due to the fact he hadn’t shown he could be a consistent tackler to that point. He would need time to develop in the NFL.

In his rookie season in 2016 for the Steelers, Burns was involved in a reserve role, although he was more than just a special teams contributer. He totaled 64 tackles and found time in the starting lineup in the back half of the season. Burns recorded an interception off then-Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco in his first career start. He also had a season-high 8 total tackles in the final game of the regular season against the Cleveland Browns, and his 11-5 Steelers went as far in the postseason as the AFC Championship Game, where Burns had a fumble recovery on top of 2 solo tackles.

The following offseason, the Steelers acquired then-2x Pro Bowl cornerback Joe Haden to lead the defensive backfield, still searching for that stellar defensive back since Troy Palamalu retired. Burns retained his starting role in 2017 opposite Haden, and found steadier footing in a defense which now featured TJ Watt, Bud Dupree, and Ryan Shazier. Artie Burns and the other defensive backs just had to be patient and wait for the pass rush to force a bad throw. Burns started all 16 games for the 13-3 Steelers and recorded 54 total tackles, 1 INT, 13 pass breakups, and 2 fumble recoveries, including the Steelers postseason loss to the Jaguars.

He didn’t capitalize on the opportunity as his rookie season might have suggested he would, and some would say he struggled in his second year with Pittsburgh.

Burns saw his playing time decrease in 2018, with veteran Coty Sensabaugh rotating into the starting lineup. Burns still found time to record a safety against the Chiefs and force a fumble against the Buccaneers. Like Burns, the Steelers struggled to duplicate their success of the past couple years, and the team went 9-6-1 while Burns was limited to 22 total tackles and 1 forced fumble on the year.

Before the 2019 season, the Pittsburgh Steelers declined the 5th-year option on Burns, setting him up for free agency after the season. His option would have costed the team almost $10 million against the cap. At the time, they hoped he could re-establish himself as a starting cornerback with the defense in a contract year, but declining the option made it clear they were prepared to go elsewhere if he did not.

Artie Burns found action in only 10 games in 2019, recording 8 total tackles primarily on special teams. After the 2019 season, the former first-round pick Burns found a new home with the Chicago Bears.

In the 2020 preseason, Burns tore his ACL, and was declared out for the season without playing a single regular season snap. He would have to wait to make his grand debut with the Bears.

The Present:

Burns was brought in with a massive wave of former-first round draft picks the Bears signed in the 2020 offseason, on a list that also included Germain Ifedi, Robert Quinn, and Barkevious Mingo. Although Burns’ first year with the team was missed due to injury, the Bears have found room for him on special teams thus far in 2021 while he continues to recover from surgery.

He’s still yet to record a recordable stat in this season, although saw 10 snaps on special teams in the Bears most recent game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Bears have to hope he’ll grow into the player he had the promise of being when the Steelers took him in the first round in 2015, but as he continues to recover from his knee injury he’s strictly a depth piece and special teams player.

The future:

Burns returned to the Bears on a one-year contract this past offseason. His re-signing was within a week of the Bears cutting ties with former All-Pro cornerback Kyle Fuller, although Burns wasn’t expected to compete for his spot. Second-year pro Kindle Vildor won the starting cornerback spot over veteran Desmond Trufant; the latter was subsequently cut from the team.

Burns is a member of a position group viewed as a weakness for the Bears, although youth is certainly a big factor in that judgement. At 26, Burns is the second-oldest cornerback on the team behind the 27-year-old Marqui Christian. Both starters (Johnson, Vildor) are too young to rent a car. They need time.

Burns’ place on the team isn’t firm, and the Bears won’t lose a lot - or save a lot - by moving forward without him. Unless he finds a way into the defensive rotation, even outside of a starting role but just in a reserve capacity (see: Duke Shelley), Burns could likely be looking for his third NFL team in the next offseason.

Week 7 prediction:

1 tackle on special teams