'I've got to be here': Why Panthers' Brian Burns isn't holding out

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Justin Houston sat out offseason workouts in 2015 because the Kansas City Chiefs hadn’t given him a long-term deal following his breakout 22-sack season. The outside linebacker said he was prepared to hold out part or all of the season if the organization failed to get it done before the July deadline for players to sign their franchise tag.

So the four-time Pro Bowl selection, as much as anyone, appreciates the commitment new Carolina Panthers teammate Brian Burns made to be in camp every day as his representatives continue to negotiate a long-term deal.

“That’s a tough situation,’’ Houston said. “My role was a little different. I wasn’t considered one of the main guys. I was on the verge of being that guy, but I still had Tamba Hali, Derrick Johnson, Eric Berry. If you’re talking about the Carolina Panthers, [Burns is] the big-name guy.

“For him being here, that says a lot about his character and the type of player he is. It means a lot to this team knowing he’s one of the leaders and he’s here.’’

Holdouts are common from big-name players seeking new deals. Among those who have held out at least portions of this offseason are San Francisco 49ers defensive end Nick Bosa (still holding out), Chiefs defensive tackle Chris Jones (still a holdout), Dallas Cowboys offensive guard Zack Martin and Las Vegas Raiders running back Josh Jacobs.

Bosa, in particular, is relevant to Burns’ negotiations, since what the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year and 2022 sack leader (18.5) gets likely will impact Burns’ deal.

Burns, a two-time Pro Bowler playing on his fifth-year rookie option, never thought about holding out to force the issue. But he did watch Thursday’s practice while the two sides tried to get closer to a deal, according to a league source.

“No fault to anybody who is not participating,’’ Burns said. “But we’ve got something special, and I’m a big part of it, so I can’t miss no time. I’ve just got to be here.’’

Burns is set to make $16 million in 2023. He remains “hopeful’’ a long-term deal can be reached before the Sept. 10 opener at the Atlanta Falcons, although the team is willing to negotiate past that. He is projected to get a deal in the range of $23 million to $28 million per year that would make him one of the top five edge rushers in the league.

Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker T.J. Watt currently leads the market at $28 million per year, and he’s 28. Burns, 25, is entering his prime and coming off a career-high 12.5 sacks in 2022.

But just because Burns never thought about holding out doesn’t mean the contract hasn’t been on his mind.

“Of course it’s been on my mind,’’ Burns said. “This is personal, but I’ve been working on my relationship with God. I left it in his hands. I just did everything I could in my power to be on this field with my teammates. I feel if you live the right way, good things will happen to you.’’

Among those pulling for Burns to get paid is New York Jets quarterback Aaron Rodgers. After the preseason opener at Bank of America Stadium, the future Hall of Famer was captured by HBO’s “Hard Knocks’’ telling Burns: “Good luck with the contract. You deserve it. You’re a f---ing incredible player.’’

The Panthers know that -- general manager Scott Fitterer turned down an offer last season by the Los Angeles Rams of two first-round picks and a second-round selection for Burns, who was the No. 16 overall pick of the 2019 draft.

This came the day after Carolina traded star running back Christian McCaffrey, the eighth pick of the 2017 draft, to the San Francisco 49ers for four draft picks.

Fitterer held on to Burns because he was a player the organization wanted to build around.

New coach Frank Reich wasn’t with the Panthers at the time, but he understands the importance of Burns as Carolina transitions from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4 and Burns moves from end to outside linebacker. When told it’s hard to get a feel for how good the defense can be because Burns and a few others didn’t play in the three preseason games, Reich smiled and said, “Good. Mission accomplished.’’

The former Florida State star did make an impression by being present every day for practice and not holding out.

“What he’s done," Reich said, "to come in and not let the contract thing be a distraction, to be here for his team, the way he’s worked on the practice field, not holding anything back, he’s doing a great job.’’

Burns’ accomplishments speak for themselves. He ranks fourth over the past three seasons in quarterback pressures with 139 and 11th in sacks with 38.

That he’s now in a scheme that outside linebackers like Watt have thrived in increases his value. His goal is to break Carolina’s single-season sack record (15) set by Hall of Famer Kevin Greene, who was the epitome of a 3-4 edge rusher.

He has not ruled out threatening the NFL’s single-season sack record of 22.5, shared by Watt (2021) and Michael Strahan (2001). He has asked Houston often about what it took to get to 22 in 2014.

“He told me it was routine,’’ Burns said with a smile. “Whatever he does, I’m going to do it because I want to get to that 22.’’

Houston, 34, believes it’s possible.

“I’ve seen a lot of pass-rushers,’’ said Houston, whose 111.5 career sacks rank fifth among active players. “His talent is second to none. The sky’s the limit for him with his talent.

“If he stays focused, he definitely can get past that.’’

Carolina tight end Hayden Hurst agreed.

“He’s one of the best in the NFL,’’ he said. “I’ve had the pleasure of blocking a lot of good guys in this league, and he’s one of the hardest. ... He’s a superstar who doesn’t have a superstar mindset.

“I hope he gets all the money in the world.’’

Burns understands that if a new deal isn’t reached before this season, he could be where Houston was in 2015 with the franchise tag.

He believes he’ll get his due, and the best way to do that is by showing up every day instead of holding out.

“We’ve got a lot of things I want to accomplish, a lot of goals, and God-willing we’ll reach those goals,’’ he said. “But I’ve got to be here.’’