NCAA tournament sensation DJ Burns Jr. has drawn NFL eyeballs — whether he wants them or not

NC State forward DJ Burns Jr. exits the interview room ahead of a Final Four college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament, Thursday, April 4, 2024, in Glendale, Ariz. NC State plays Purdue on Saturday. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson )
NC State forward DJ Burns Jr. exits the interview room on Thursday in Glendale, Arizona, where his Wolfpack will face Purdue on Saturday in the Final Four of the NCAA men's tournament. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson )

On Friday night of the Sweet 16 in the NCAA men's tournament, the cat got out of the bag. All 6-foot-9 and 275 pounds of him.

Reese’s Senior Bowl executive director Jim Nagy was sitting on his couch at home, watching 11th seeded NC State put away No. 2 seed Marquette, and he couldn’t take his eyes off Wolfpack forward DJ Burns. In that moment, Nagy was like most audiences that have watched NC State’s Cinderella run to the Final Four, smitten with the energy, skill and infectious smile that have turned Burns into one of this tournament’s most enjoyable social media water cooler conversations. The only difference? Nagy had thoughts of Burns in football pads, pulling around the end of an NFL offensive line and blowing up a linebacker, or sliding into pass protection on a quarterback’s blind side.

This is the football evaluator’s curse. When encountering uncommon size, length or agility away from a football field, their brain starts to wonder.

“It’s just where football people’s heads go,” Nagy said this week. “It’s usually frame and skill set. It’s just the intrigue factor. So I fired off a tweet, saying I was having a hard time not seeing him kick-sliding or pulling on run plays. I’m sitting there last Friday night watching the game and I see this big guy, he’s got nimble feet. He can move a little bit, has coordination and body control. He’s moving like he’s moving — and that’s just a big ol’ kid.”

With that one tweet, eyebrows went up in some high places. Not just because Nagy has a long résumé as a football talent evaluator — with multiple NFL teams and now leading the Senior Bowl, which is a cornerstone draft nexus — but also because others in the pro football sphere were thinking it too. Within hours, Nagy got texts from multiple high-ranking NFL personnel executives. The tweet would get "liked" more than 3,000 times and drew a slew of responses, including a “100” emoji from Ole Miss head coach Lane Kiffin, who, lest we forget, also had a memorable cup of coffee as the head coach of the Oakland Raiders.

And just like that, the NFL’s off-radar interest in Burns — who is a senior for the Wolfpack — entered the public consciousness. Which, as it turns out, wasn’t ideal for some evaluators who were quietly following along with his tournament.

“[A high-ranking personnel man] texted me like, ‘Dude, you’re killing me right now with all these tweets,’” Nagy said. “I texted back kind of apologetic like, ‘I’m sorry.’ And he was like, ‘Nah, I’m messing with you. But I really was hoping they’d get knocked out of the tournament the first weekend and I was going to try to slide over and work the kid out.’”

Of course, the NFL’s plans aren’t always in alignment with the athletes the league is interested in pursuing. For his part, Burns said Thursday that his horizon is aimed at pursuing a pro basketball career. But the exchange with reporters about the NFL interest didn’t come without at least a tiny hitch in his answer.

“So you have no interest in playing football?” a reporter asked.

“Zero, yeah,” Burns answered. “I mean … ”

He gave a slight pause and even slighter nod.

“Yeah, zero.”

For a player who hasn’t put on football pads since the eighth grade — when he was a tight end and defensive end — it’s the sensible answer. After all, Burns has been a handful during a wildly improbable nine-game winning streak that included taking the ACC tournament crown, then reeling off four NCAA tournament victories en route to this weekend’s Final Four. Along the way, Burns has given teams fits with his immense size, quick feet and soft hands in the lane, averaging 18.3 points in the tournament while captivating television audiences and social media. All of it punctuated by a superb season-high 29-point effort against Duke in the Elite Eight, which only raised the buzz in NFL circles.

“His competitiveness is fun to watch,” one AFC executive said. “I get juiced up seeing an athlete who loves playing and puts his heart and emotion into it. Especially the big guys in basketball, where you look at the quickness in their feet and start to mentally check boxes. I think he definitely checks enough off that if he were to do an open workout, you’d have quite a few teams send someone to see what’s there.”

That was echoed by a handful of other personnel executives and scouts who spoke to Yahoo Sports, most of whom also noted the difficulty of making a basketball to football projection. The pinnacle success story remains Kent State basketball star Antonio Gates, who signed with the San Diego Chargers as a tight end and made eight Pro Bowls and six All-Pro teams during a career that is eventually expected to land him in the Hall of Fame. But Gates was also a wildly rare two-sport athlete who initially enrolled at Michigan State, where he had plans to play for Nick Saban’s football team and Tom Izzo’s basketball team. Wanting to pursue basketball primarily, Gates eventually transferred a handful of times before landing at Kent State and leading the Golden Flashes to an Elite Eight. Much like Burns’ run with NC State the past few weeks, that tournament run put Gates squarely on the NFL’s radar.

There are also a handful of other success stories for players going from college basketball to pro football, including longtime Seattle Seahawks offensive tackle George Fant (who joined the team when Nagy was a personnel man for the team), Indianapolis Colts tight end Mo Alie-Cox, tight end Marcus Pollard, who played with several teams and former Dallas Cowboys tight end Rico Gathers. The success stories are notable. The guys who never quite fit the bill after drawing NFL attention? They get forgotten in the wind.

“It’s definitely a tricky projection, and for every Mo Allie-Cox there’s a wasteland of guys who just aren’t cut out for it,” one NFC scout said. “But first they’ve got to have the requisite frame [and] build that’s on par with what an NFL tight end or offensive tackle looks like. … Then we evaluate their baseline athletic tools. Alie-Cox and Rico Gathers were explosive, powerful athletes with ruggedness to their game.”

If Burns were to change his mind and go the NFL route, that’s the kind of evaluation that would be ahead: A basic readout of his athletic frame, ability and strength, then a projection into a position and an evaluation of whether those traits translated into making the kinds of football movements and decisions that were necessary at the position. All layered over a simple question that always hovers in the background for basketball to football transitions: Is this particular basketball player tough enough physically and mentally to handle the significant violence that occurs in the NFL?

Those questions appear to be irrelevant when it comes to the basketball path that Burns is blazing. But if he ever changes his mind?

“Working out for some NFL teams isn’t a bad option to have on the table if basketball doesn’t work out,” one longtime evaluator said of Burns. “He might not be considering it now, but who knows what’s down the road for him. Either way, when you watch him, it’s just a fun thing to think about.”

For now, despite all the social media buzz and contemplation, that might have to be enough.