Burton Burns was hired by the Giants for one reason: To make Saquon Barkley better.
That’s why Joe Judge tapped the 67-year-old -- who had never spent a day of his long career employed by an NFL team and had not served as an on-field position coach since 2017 -- to be the team’s running backs coach in 2020.
Burns had a hand in the development of Mark Ingram and Derrick Henry, and the hope was that he would be able to impart some of his wisdom and techniques to the Giants’ prized ballcarrier as he begins his third year in the pros.
Burns hasn’t even been able to talk to Barkley about football, and there’s no telling when he’ll be able to actually coach him in person. Yet Burns has proved to be much more valuable than anyone thought he could be – or would need to be – when the Giants lured him out of his semi-retirement as an assistant athletic director for football at the University of Alabama.
In fact, he has become one of the Giants’ secret weapons in the upcoming draft. He is one of a half-dozen inadvertently prescient hires by Judge whose significance at the start of their employment was so unrecognized that not even they could have imagined their impact.
Burns and the others, who have spent either the majority of their careers or recent seasons in the college game, have become invaluable assets as the Giants try to fill the holes left in their pre-draft scouting process created by the stay-at-home orders to stall the spread of the coronavirus.
Scouts and coaches from NFL teams normally would have spent the past month traveling from campus to campus to watch pro days and meet with prospects, as well as bring 30 of their top targets to their facility for in-person meetings or workouts. Restrictions on travel and public gatherings have prevented that from happening, leaving many teams without that key piece to the puzzle.
But not the Giants.
“I’ll tell you what, it’s been a great asset for us,” Judge said of having so much college flavor on his staff. It means that the team doesn’t have to rely on secondhand evaluations regarding everyday elements such as hustle, leadership, dedication or academics. Instead, they have firsthand knowledge.
“Maybe they haven’t coached them directly, but they recruited them and they have personal relationships with these players,” Judge said. “You find out a lot about a player from a coach who’s spent a lot of time meeting him and his family. The homework that they’ve done over the course of really a year-plus when they’re recruiting in college is more beneficial than you spending an afternoon at a pro day with him. It’s been a great resource for us.”
So if the Giants have a question about, say, Alabama tackle Jedrick Wills, a strong consideration for them with the No. 4 overall pick, who better to shed light on him than Burns? He was the associate head coach and running backs coach in Tuscaloosa when Wills arrived there and has seen every one of his games, if not every one of his practices.
“Just think about all of the insight we get into the 'Bama kids,” Giants general manager Dave Gettleman said.
The same goes for Sean Spencer, the Giants’ new defensive line coach. Want to know about a Big Ten player? Spencer was the associate head coach and defensive running game coordinator at Penn State before joining the Giants. If he didn’t recruit or coach a player in the conference, he certainly coached against him.
Considering some Big 12 talent? New senior offensive assistant Derek Dooley was the offensive coordinator at Missouri the last two years.
The Giants would seem to have the SEC covered very well with not just Burns’ experience at Alabama but inside linebackers coach Kevin Sherrer, who was a defensive coordinator at Tennessee the last two years, and outside linebackers coach Bret Bielema, who was head coach at Arkansas from 2013-17.
“Obviously, a number of our coaches are coming directly from the Southeastern Conference, so you’ve got great contacts,” Gettleman said. “It’s very helpful, it gives you insight, all of the information. Our college scouts do a great job of digging out information, so between the information the college scouts have, and Burton and fellas like that that we’ve hired that are coming from college, it sure really gives us a good in.”
If you look at the hires and signings the Giants already have made since Judge arrived, it’s clear how much they value direct references. It’s almost impossible to find a coach or player they have brought in who did not have someone in the building who could personally vouch for him. Don’t be surprised to see that kind of LinkedIn networking on display this week when the selection process begins.
The coaches won’t have the final say in whom the Giants draft. That’s a front-office responsibility, and the Giants' scouts have spent much of the past year digging into the prospects who will be available to them in the draft beginning on Thursday night.
But at a time when some frustrated NFL teams are staring at the cracks in the normally complete murals of information they have of potential players, the Giants have for the most part been able to spackle and finish those portraits.
“Look, they were great recruiters in college,” Judge said of the hidden skill of his recently-plucked-from-the-NCAA crew. “That’s not going to mean anything in the NFL, but we can use what they’ve learned in the past on a specific player to tie into what we see as a whole person.”
It’s not the task any of them was hired to perform. At this point, though, it’s become the most important part of their jobs.
The Old College Try
Assistant coaches hired by Joe Judge who arrived directly or recently from the college game:
Coach // NYG Title // Most Recent College Exp.
Burton Burns // Running backs coach // Alabama 2007-19
Derek Dooley // Senior offensive assistant // Missouri 2017-19
Sean Spencer // Defensive line coach // Penn State 2014-19
Kevin Sherrer // Inside linebackers coach // Tennessee 2018-19
Bret Bielema // Outside linebackers coach // Arkansas 2013-17
Mike Treier // Defensive quality control // Marshall 2015-19