PITTSBURGH (AP) 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. Burns compared himself to Arizona Cardinals star Patrick Peterson and described himself as a ''pure athlete,'' one who won't turn 21 until this Sunday. Heading to a team with annual Super Bowl aspirations turned out to be a pretty good early birthday present.
Burns met with Colbert and Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin at Miami's pro day and gravitated toward Tomlin's charismatic approach to his job.
''He's got so much swag,'' Burns said with a laugh.
And Pittsburgh believes Burns has an equal amount of resiliency. His mother, Dana Smith, died last October at 44 following a heart attack. Burns ended up playing a few days later against Duke, leaving behind Burns and two younger brothers. Her passing helped spur his decision to leave Miami with a year of eligibility remaining.
''It was difficult at first,'' Burns said. ''First couple days, first couple practices, it hurt. But it's something you got to deal with it and it makes you stronger.''
Colbert called Burns, who is the father of a 1-year-old son named AJ, ''a special kid.'' 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,'' 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. Still, there's little doubt he'll be tasked with immediately 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 the Steelers are likely to keep searching for more depth in the secondary as the draft progresses.
''We really felt we had a good chance to get a corner and it was quality from top to bottom,'' Colbert said. ''There's still quality left at that position.''
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