Ask the coaching staff of the Carolina Panthers who they think is a defensive player people aren’t talking about that’s poised to have a breakout season and there’s one name that continually gets mentioned.
And it’s not just because he’s been dreaming of playing for the Panthers since he picked up a football – it’s because Juston Burris has earned it.
Even though he was born in Virginia, the 2016 fourth-round pick out of NC State has always called North Carolina home. That’s why, after attending both high school and college in Raleigh, Burris chose to move to Charlotte and has called the Queen City home for the past three years, even as his NFL career took him all over the country.
It’s also why, when free agency opened in March and his agent told him that the Panthers were interested in bringing him back to the place he grew up, he didn’t believe it.
“There’s no way the hometown team is going to come and get me,” Burris – who became a Panthers fan in high school during the Cam Newton-Steve Smith Era of the team – told The Riot Report in a phone interview. “That would be a dream come true, so I was listening to what other teams were saying [because] I didn’t really think it was going to happen.”
But Carolina was interested very early on – Matt Rhule cited Burris, who they had earmarked as a priority target before free agency began, and Tre Boston as two “pivotal” offseason signings to bring some stability and versatility to the secondary and Burris was the first signing reported of the Rhule Era in free agency.
“I don’t even want to hear anything else – let’s go. It was a dream come true – growing up in Raleigh, being a Panthers fan, being in Charlotte and just loving the atmosphere — uptown is crazy on a Panthers gameday — I just wanted to be a part of that. I want to bring a championship here.”
Although the view has changed slightly – he’s moved from an uptown condo to a house in the ‘burbs with a back deck and a grill – Burris is ecstatic to be home.
And the Panthers are excited that he’s here, too.
Burris was drafted as a cornerback – he started the final 28 games of his career in Raleigh at corner – and spent the first few seasons of his career at the position; but it wasn’t until coaches in Cleveland asked him to make the transition to safety in 2018 that he blossomed.
And now his plug-and-play ability at multiple positions fits in perfectly with the multiple looks that defensive coordinator Phil Snow is trying to implement in Carolina – someone that feels comfortable in multiple spots in the secondary, whether it’s safety, nickel or outside corner, will be an important chess piece for Snow. The 26-year old fits the mold of young defensive players who haven’t necessarily gotten the chance in previous stops to play in a full-time capacity, but impressed when given the opportunity to get on the field.
“As far as being a cover guy at corner and now coming to safety, it definitely helped me a lot – I think I was a guy at corner who could cover and now I’m a guy at safety who can cover and also play in the box,” said Burris. “That versatility is going to help me to see the field in different ways. Coach Snow is trying to bring about a versatile defense – he’s got a lot of versatile players and he’s going to put them in a position to succeed.”
“I think you’ll see a lot of different guys who are in a lot of different positions.”
With the Panthers expected to use a 4-2-5 defensive scheme for at least some snaps, that means you might see Burris lined up on the outside covering a receiver man-to-man, he might be in the box as an extra defender against the run or even rotated as the high safety – it also means that the Panthers won’t have to switch their personnel as often, whether it’s their base defense against 11 personnel (three wide receivers) or nickel against 12 (two tight ends).
Having safeties like Burris, Boston and second-round pick Jeremy Chinn means that any of the three can play multiple positions in the secondary.
“Instead of the offense dictating what we do, we want to dictate what the offense does,” said Burris. “I think we have that versatility with a lot of different players on this defense that a lot of offenses won’t know where we’re coming from – which is what you want. When you have guys that are interchangeable, it makes for a tough defense to gameplan against.”
“It’s going to be fun.”
Burris began the 2019 season in Los Angeles with the Raiders after spending the offseason and training camp with the Browns – when Cleveland suffered injuries in their secondary the first two weeks of the season, Burris found himself flying back to Cleveland that Friday night and starting on Sunday against the Rams in Week 3, intercepting Jared Goff and playing every defensive snap. He would play his way into a starting role for eight of the final ten games of the season, amassing 32 tackles, two interceptions and a forced fumble as he moved freely between the safety positions for most of the 2019 season.
“As a person, [that period] taught me to be resilient, to keep going and keep working. That was a tough time,” said Burris. “For my family, it was tough – they didn’t know what was going to happen, where I was going. It was tougher on them – but going back to Cleveland was the best thing that could have happened.”
“They knew that once I came back that I was going to be ready to play – I came back [to Cleveland] almost at midnight on Friday night and played on Sunday….to go out there after getting into town less than 48 hours before and playing 70 snaps, it was crazy.”
“But it was a blessing – I’m glad that I was able to go back and showcase my talents.”
At the end of the season, his teammates voted to award Burris the Ed Block Courage Award, given annually to a member of each of the 32 NFL teams who exemplifies the qualities of Ed Block, the former head athletic trainer of the Baltimore Colts – courage, compassion, commitment and community.
“That’s one of my biggest accomplishments,” said Burris about the Award. “It’s not a fan vote. It’s not a popularity vote. It’s the guys that are with you everyday – it’s the guys who saw me miss all of OTAs because I had shoulder surgery. Guys that saw me come back into camp at a new position. Guys that saw me come in at work – it’s those guys that helped me and embraced me; they helped me with my transition to safety.”
“They helped me come back to the team after being gone for the first two weeks – it was guys that were actually in the building, seeing me every single day, how I prepared to be the best that I can.”
“That’s going to be something that I cherish long after football is done.”
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Before Anything We Are Black Men. Before being A police Chief…before being a football player…before being a coach…before being a radio host….BEFORE IT ALL WE ARE BLACK MEN And Our Life Matters. I want to thank Charlotte Police Chief Putney for taking the time to meet with a group of black men who are trying to create change in their community. With everything that’s going on it’s time for action! This was the first step. Chief Putney listened, educated, and guided us into ways that we can create change. We left this conversation with 3 plans of actions. Civil Service Board: the civil service board is how police officers complaints are handled. A sworn police officer can not be fired by just the police chief it has to be confirmed by the board. The officer that KILLED GEORGE FLOYD SHOULD HAVE LOST HIS BADGE A LONG TIME AGO! THE BOARD SHOULD BE HELD ACCOUNTABLE ALSO! Currently their are 2 vacant spots on that board! The members are appointed by the City Council. We need more people of color on that board that understands our community. Education: We ALL have to continue to educate ourselves on the reasons for our differences in beliefs. Whether that’s our upbringing, our country’s history, and each other’s cultural history. African American History should be required with General Education in high schools and universities! Community: We must continue to do the work to create transparency and trust in our community. We must bridge the gap between our police officers who were hired to protect and serve and a community that is fed up with the injustices not only by our officers but the entire system. Change takes time, but action starts now! Join Us! #BlackLivesMatter
Burris made community service a priority in Cleveland, focusing on education, youth football and mental health awareness efforts; like other Panthers players, Burris has gotten involved in Charlotte as the nation protests the systemic oppression of the African-American community and the police brutality that has plagued the nation. Burris was part of a group that included fellow Panther Shaq Thompson that met with police chief Kerr Putney on Saturday to discuss how the community and police can come together to create change.
“Before anything we are black men,” Burris posted on social media. “Before being a police Chief…before being a football player…before being a coach…before being a radio host….BEFORE IT ALL WE ARE BLACK MEN And Our Life Matters.”
“I want to thank Charlotte Police Chief Putney for taking the time to meet with a group of black men who are trying to create change in their community. With everything that’s going on it’s time for action! This was the first step.”
Even though he’s played football in multiple uniforms, he hasn’t forgotten his trip to Bank of America Stadium in 2015 with NC State for the Belk Bowl. And Burris is elated that he’s close to his family – they don’t have to get on a flight to watch him play, they can just hop down the road. His extended family stretches throughout the Carolinas into Virginia and Burris is hoping to occasionally get the chance to watch his brother play high school ball a couple of hours up I-85 in Raleigh.
These are all things that you can’t do if you’re not playing football in your home state.
“I’ve always wanted to be a part of this – I’ve always wanted to be a part of this team,” said Burris – and you could almost hear his smile coming through the phone. “Being in that stadium, I was like ‘one day, I want to be in this stadium playing for the Panthers.'”
“And you know what? Dreams do come true.”
(Top Photo Of Juston Burris Via James Guillory/USA TODAY Sports)