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NCAA Tournament sensation DJ Burns Jr. has caught the attention of the NFL — whether he wants it or not

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NC State forward DJ Burns Jr. leaves the interview room before a Final Four college basketball game of the NCAA Tournament on Thursday, April 4, 2024, in Glendale, Arizona.  NC State plays Purdue on Saturday.  (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

NC State forward DJ Burns Jr. leaves the interview room Thursday in Glendale, Ariz., where his Wolf Pack will play Purdue in the Final Four of the NCAA men's tournament on Saturday. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

The cat came out of the bag on Friday night of the Sweet 16 in the NCAA men's tournament. All six feet tall and weighing 275 pounds.

Reese's Senior Bowl general manager Jim Nagy sat on his couch at home, watching No. 11 seed NC State blow away No. 2 seed Marquette, and he couldn't keep his eyes off Wolfpack forward DJ Burns. In that moment, Nagy, like most viewers who watched NC State's Cinderella advance to the Final Four, was blown away by the energy, skill and infectious smile that made Burns one of the most entertaining social media conversations of this tournament . The only difference? Nagy had thoughts of Burns in football pads, moving around the end of an NFL offensive line and blowing up a linebacker or slipping into pass protection on a quarterback's blind side.

This is the curse of the football referee. When they encounter unusual size, length, or mobility outside of a soccer field, their brain begins to wonder.

“It’s just a matter of where footballers’ minds go,” Nagy said this week. “Usually it depends on the frame and the skills. 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 watching the game last Friday night and I see this big guy, he's got quick feet. He can move a little, has coordination and body control. He moves like he’s moving – and he’s just a big ol’ boy.”

This one tweet raised some eyebrows. Not just because Nagy has had a long career as a football talent evaluator — with multiple NFL teams and now at the helm of the Senior Bowl, a cornerstone of the draft context — but also because others in pro football do, too thought. Within hours, Nagy received text messages from several high-ranking NFL personnel executives. The tweet received more than 3,000 likes and sparked numerous reactions, including a “100” emoji from Ole Miss head coach Lane Kiffin, who, lest we forget, also had a memorable cup of coffee as head coach of the Oakland Raiders.

And so the NFL's secret interest in Burns — a Wolfpack senior — entered the public consciousness. Which, as it turned out, wasn't ideal for some evaluators who quietly followed his tournament.

“[A high-ranking personnel man] texted me, 'Dude, you're killing me with all these tweets,'” Nagy said. “I sent back some kind of apologetic text, like, 'I'm sorry.' And he was like, 'No, I'm kidding you.' But I was really hoping they were going to be eliminated the first weekend and I wanted to try to come over and train the kid.'”

Of course, the NFL's plans don't always align with the athletes the league wants to pursue. For his part, Burns said Thursday that his goal is to pursue a professional basketball career. But the exchange with reporters about NFL interest didn't come without at least one small snag in his answer.

“So you're not interested in playing football?” asked a reporter.

“Zero, yes,” Burns replied. “I mean … “

He paused briefly and nodded slightly.

“Yes, zero.”

For a player who hasn't put on football pads since eighth grade — when he was a tight end and defensive end — that's the sensible answer. After all, Burns was a handful during a highly improbable nine-game winning streak that included capturing the ACC Tournament crown and picking up four NCAA Tournament victories en route to this weekend's Final Four. Along the way, Burns has impressed teams in the lane with his enormous size, quick feet and soft hands, averaging 18.3 points in the tournament while captivating television audiences and social media. All of this was highlighted by a stellar 29-point win over Duke in the Elite Eight that only caused a stir in NFL circles.

“His competitiveness is fun to watch,” said one AFC executive. “I think it's exciting to see an athlete who loves playing and puts his heart and emotions into it. Especially the big boys in basketball, where you look at the speed of their feet and start ticking boxes in your head. I think he definitely scores enough points that if he were to do an open practice some teams would have to send someone out to see what’s there.”

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This was echoed by a handful of other recruiting managers and scouts who spoke to Yahoo Sports, and most of them also pointed out how difficult it is to convert basketball into football. The highlight of the success story remains Kent State basketball star Antonio Gates, who signed as a tight end with the San Diego Chargers and made eight Pro Bowls and six All-Pro honors in a career that would eventually land him in the Hall of Fame. teams made. But Gates was also an extremely rare two-sport athlete, initially enrolling at Michigan State, where he planned to play for Nick Saban's football team and Tom Izzo's basketball team. Wanting to focus primarily on basketball, Gates ended up transferring a few times before landing at Kent State and leading the Golden Flashes to an Elite Eight. Similar to Burns' run with NC State in recent weeks, this tournament run put Gates squarely in the NFL's sights.

There are also a handful of other success stories for players transitioning from college basketball to professional football, including longtime Seattle Seahawks offensive tackle George Fant (who joined the team when Nagy was the team's personnel manager), tight- Indianapolis Colts end Mo Alie-Cox, tight end Marcus Pollard, who played for multiple teams, and former Dallas Cowboys tight end Rico Gathers. The success stories are remarkable. The guys who never quite fit the bill once they caught the attention of the NFL? They will be forgotten in the wind.

“It's definitely a tricky prediction, and for every Mo Allie-Cox there's a wasteland full of guys who just aren't cut out for it,” one NFC scout said. “But first they have to have the necessary framework [and] Build that rivals the look of a tight end or offensive tackle in the NFL. … Then we evaluate your basic sports equipment. Alie-Cox and Rico Gathers were explosive, powerful athletes with toughness in their game.”

If Burns were to change his mind and go the NFL route, this is the type of evaluation that would be in front of us: A basic assessment of his athletic build, ability and strength, then a projection to a position and an assessment of whether allow these characteristics to be transferred to him, making the football movements and decisions necessary for the position. All overshadowed by a simple question that always hovers in the background of transitions from basketball to football: Is this particular basketball player physically and mentally strong enough to handle the significant violence that occurs in the NFL?

These questions seem irrelevant when it comes to the basketball path Burns is taking. But will he ever change his mind?

“Working out for some NFL teams isn't a bad option if basketball doesn't work out,” one longtime evaluator said of Burns. “He may not be thinking about it now, but who knows what's coming. “Anyway, it's just fun to think about when you watch him.”

For now, despite all the excitement and contemplation on social media, this may have to be enough.