Expert Analysis


7 min read

NFL Executives Debate Whether DJ Burns Could Make Leap to Football

North Carolina State basketball player D.J. Burns
North Carolina State Wolfpack forward D.J. Burns Jr. (30) celebrates during the second half of the game against North Carolina Tar Heels at PNC Arena. (Jaylynn Nash-USA TODAY Sports)

March Madness brings many surprises every year, and just when you think you’ve seen everything, you quickly learn you have not. The last thing I thought I’d be writing about is whether a college basketball player could realistically transition to becoming an NFL player, but here we are.

North Carolina State big man DJ Burns has become a favorite around the country and has been a pivotal part of the No. 11 seed Wolfpack making it to the Final Four. Burns, who is listed at 6-foot-9 and 275 pounds, has averaged 18.3 points, 5.0 rebounds and 3.5 assists in the tournament. And he exploded for 29 points in the team's Elite Eight upset win against Duke.

His combination of size and agility has raised a real question on Twitter and in NFL buildings: is there a scenario where he could transition to football?

Players like Julius Peppers, Jimmy Graham, Antonio Gates, Tony Gonzalez, Mo Alie-Cox and others played both sports before eventually pursuing football as their main sport.

How Burns ComPares to Others Who made the Leap
PlayerHeight, weightPos.NFL seasonsKey career stats
Tony Gonzalez6-5, 247TE17HOF: 1,325 rec., 15,127 yards, 111 TDs
Antonio Gates6-4, 255TE16955 rec., 11,841 yards, 116 TDs
Julius Peppers6-7, 295DE17HOF: 159.5 sacks, 52 FF, 557 solo tackles
Jimmy Graham6-7, 265TE13*719 rec., 8,545 yards, 89 TDs
George Fant6-5, 322OT7*73 starts for three teams
Mo Alie-Cox6-5, 267TE6*102 rec., 1,286 yards, 14 TDs
* denotes still active

So could Burns actually become an NFL prospect? The33rdTeam reached out to some league executives and scouts to get their take.

Could D.J. Burns Make an NFL Roster?

NFC Executive

“At this point in the offseason where rosters are at 90 players, there would surely be a team that would be willing to put him on the roster and see where that takes them. Heck, a team put Tim Tebow back on a roster a few years ago to try him as a tight end.

"Now, if you’re asking me if he can make a 53-man roster, that’s an entirely different question. So many things would have to go right for that to happen, but his frame and body type would be ideal. The scout in me sees stuff with him when you watch him play basketball that makes you think, 'Wow he would be an interesting project if he wanted to try football.' The footwork and lateral agility especially is intriguing."

AFC Scout

"I think it would be cool if he had a pro day so we could see if there’s something to work with there. George Fant out of Western Kentucky had something similar where he pursued basketball and eventually was urged to try football, and he got his shot in the NFL as an undrafted free agent with the Seahawks. Here we are now, and he’s entering his eighth season.

"It’s not the craziest thing. It’s happened before. But a lot would have to go right, and D.J. would have to be committed to it, which I’m sure he would."

NFC Scout

“I don’t know if I’d be using a draft pick, even if it's in the seventh round unless our team was actually able to gather information and see if there’s any potential for this to be a thing.

"At least when the Eagles used a seventh-round pick on Jordan Mailata, who had never played football before, they and other teams had the ability to work him out, and from there they made the decision to take a flyer on him. That obviously has worked out tremendously, and he’s turned into one of the best left tackles in the league. But you can’t just start picking players you don’t have information on for the sake of doing it.”

AFC Executive

"Before anything, you need to know if this guy even wants to play football, and you’d need to know if he has the toughness and makeup to be in the National Football League. It’s way easier said than done. The idea of it is cool; every team would look into it just to make sure they aren’t missing anything if he were to make that decision, but this is more of a fun topic than anything right now."

North Carolina State Wolfpack forward D.J. Burns Jr. (30) fouls Syracuse Orange center Jesse Edwards (14) during an ACC game at the JMA Wireless Dome at Syracuse, N.Y. (Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports)

What Position Would Burns Play?

NFC Scout

“I read that he played a little defensive end and tight end in middle school, so that’s probably what’s on his mind. For me, somewhere on the offensive line is probably what I’m looking at.

"If he were to have a pro day, I’d imagine teams would want to put him through a full workout, including the 40-yard dash, get him on the bench press, do the shuttle drill, get his actual height and weight, a 3-cone, etc. And then have him go through an offensive line drill workout. From there, if a team likes what they see, that’s when you’d organize a private workout. The timing makes things difficult with the draft later this month. But teams will look for talent anywhere and everywhere.”

That's not a tight end body. He's meant to be on the offensive line or defensive line.

NFC Executive
NFC Executive

“I’ve seen some people suggest tight end. That’s not a tight end body. He’s meant to be on the offensive line or defensive line.

"This wouldn’t be something where he’s drafted or gets signed as an undrafted free agent, and all of a sudden, he’s on the field playing. This would be a developmental thing that would require time, patience and some really good coaching.

"Jordan Mailata got Jeff Stoutland in Philadelphia. He was so great for him that Mailata’s Sunday Night Football intro has him saying 'Jeff Stoutland University' for his college. Burns would need someone like that for this to have any chance if he were to pursue it.”

Do NFL Teams Scout College Basketball?

NFC Executive

"I don’t know of any NFL team having an actual assigned person or department for that. The personnel and scouting departments in every building are pretty busy already, and we’re not just scouting every collegiate player, but we also have our eyes on all these spring leagues and the CFL and other pro leagues.

"But we also hear many different things throughout the course of the year whether it's from other scouts, or former executives and coaches, and people in the agent community where it’s like 'Hey, I heard about so and so,' and that’s where your antennas might go up.

"The D.J. Burns thing took off on its own for the most part, but I’m sure there were people in team buildings who were thinking along the same lines as people on social media were."

AFC Executive

“I would assume that would require a lot of work and would be frankly impossible. But we definitely do hear about basketball players who also have played football and might want to go back to it. That stuff happens. There are only a handful that actually pan out.

"I was in Cleveland a couple of years ago when we signed Texas Tech power forward Marcus Santos-Silva as a tight end. We were made aware of him, we liked the physical traits, we kept it quiet, let the draft go by, and then signed him as an undrafted free agent. It didn’t pan out, but that would be an example of a situation where it kinda came to us, not we discovered it.”

Burns was asked on the Dan Patrick Show about the possibility of pursuing an NFL career should a professional basketball career not happen: "I'd probably explore some other options with basketball first before all of that. But I'm not a closed-minded person," Burns said.

For the time being, Burns and NC State will take on Purdue in the Final Four on Saturday.

Tags: D.J. Burns