PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Steelers spent nearly 20 years ignoring cornerbacks in the draft.
They couldn't ignore Artie Burns. Not with a secondary in serious need of speed, youth and size. The Steelers believe Burns gives them all three.
Pittsburgh took the Miami cornerback with the 25th overall pick on Thursday night, the first time the Steelers grabbed a corner in the opening round since taking Chad Scott 24th in 1997. The drought, a stretch that saw the team take four linebackers, four offensive linemen and three wide receivers instead, is over.
"There's a premium in the NFL right now," general manager Kevin Colbert said. "There's big receivers and when you look for corners and find somebody with that kind of length, that kind of speed, that kind of athleticism (you take him)."
Pittsburgh is in the process of revamping a secondary that was the weak link on a team that went 11-7 and fell to eventual Super Bowl champion Denver in the divisional round of the playoffs. The Steelers cut Cortez Allen less than two years into a lucrative $26 million deal and made no attempt to bring back Brandon Boykin, acquired in a trade with Philadelphia last summer. They did re-sign veteran William Gay and have second-year players Senquez Golson and Doran Grant — taken in the second and fourth rounds last spring — as well as Ross Cockrell.
None, however, have the pedigree of Burns, who led the ACC with six interceptions last fall despite playing through personal tragedy. His mother, Dana Smith, died last October at 44 following a heart attack. Burns ended up playing a few days later against Duke.
"He's a special kid," Colbert said.
One the Steelers will rely on to help a defensive backfield that made the occasional big play — finishing sixth in the NFL with 17 interceptions — but gave up plenty of them too. Pittsburgh ranked 30th in the league in pass defense last year, surrendering nearly 291.3 yards per game. Burns, a member of the Miami track team, can keep up with receivers. That quickness allows him to play at the line of scrimmage, where he can use his strength to disrupt their timing and if they get by him, he has the recovery speed to make up the difference.
"He's got a lot of growth potential," coach Mike Tomlin said. "We're excited about the upside. He's a natural bump corner."
Tomlin likened Burns to a piece of clay the coaching staff will try to mold. Burns started just two seasons at Miami and will turn 21 on Sunday. Still, there's little doubt he'll be tasked with filling a void left when Ike Taylor retired after the 2014 season. Pittsburgh anticipated Allen taking over as the team's shutdown corner but it never happened. Allen signed a five-year contract on the eve of the 2014 season but struggled with his confidence and his health before the Steelers decided to move on.
The team remains high on Golson, who missed all of his rookie season with an injury, but Burns is bigger and faster and will be given every opportunity to help the back end of the defense in 2016.