In typical Wally Buono fashion, the BC Lions laid low in free agency, allowing other teams to overpay for big-name free agents. Instead, like he’s known for, Buono worked on re-signing his own players, bringing in some depth pieces for cheap, and picking through the second and third tiers of free agents.
One of the sneaky-good signings Buono made was bringing over former Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ weak-side linebacker Tony Burnett, who’ll help fill the void left by Adam Bighill, a new member of the New Orleans Saints. Burnett spent two seasons in Winnipeg, showing dominance on special-teams and some very enticing potential on defense in five starts last season. This earned him a pile of NFL try-outs as a strong safety earlier in the off-season.
From a salary cap perspective, this is a terrific deal for the Lions. Burnett, a soon-to-be third-year player, reportedly signed for between $85,000 to $90,000. It’s also good from a schematic stand-point, as Burnett was the only realistic option available this off-season that allows defensive coordinator Mark Washington to deploy his weak-side linebacker in the same, unprecedented way.
Bighill did a little bit of everything for the Lions last year. He rushed the passer as a 3-4 outside linebacker, he covered running backs, he blitzed and he spot-dropped from WILL. He occasionally lined up at strong safety and he occasionally lined up at free safety. So, yes, he really did do everything.
Below is a GIF of Bighill rotating pre-snap to strong safety in 2-man under defense, a coverage that has two deep defenders splitting the field in half while the underneath defenders play man-coverage. You do not see inside linebackers in the CFL asked to do this. Period. They all lack the speed, quickness and fluidity, among many other reasons, to cover in space like this.
But here’s Burnett doing the same thing. The 6’1″, 205-pounder rotates to SS pre-snap and splits the deep part of the field in half with FS Taylor Loffler (not pictured) in 2-man under defense.
Burnett is an incredible athlete. He played cornerback in college for the University of Southern California Trojans, where he also a track star. Along with playing inside linebacker for the Bombers at WILL, Burnett played both gunner, tackle and guard on the punt team, and even returned some kicks in his first season. If he had to play nickel linebacker, he’s one of very, very few – if not the only – WILL linebackers that could make the transition. This is not at all to say Burnett is/will be as a good as Adam Bighill, but the fact that he’s a capable inside linebacker who’s versatility allows Washington to maintain a large part of his pass-defense concepts in his play-book is invaluable.
Despite being small in bulk, Burnett packs a punch when he hits. He has a great first-step, unprecedented closing speed and great twitch. He also shines as a traditional spot-dropping linebacker in coverage, reading eyes and breaking on routes, flashing his aforementioned impressive traits.
He’s still inexperienced as a linebacker, and must certainly work on his eyes as a run defender. At times, misdirection would put him out of sorts. He’s not very physical in the trenches and in the shedding of blocks, but he’s still very young and new to the position – remember, he was a corner in college.
Burnett has a bright future ahead of him in BC, and one can only imagine how much of a help Soloman Elimimian will be as a teammate.
There were dozens of signings announced on day one of free agency, and while Buono wasn’t a participant in all the lofty salaries being tossed around, he may have inked one of the best valued contracts in the signing of Burnett.