BBD Editor: Dan Hope
Michael Sam became internationally known after publicly revealing his homosexuality Feb. 9, but NFL scouts and college football fans should have already been well aware of the 2013 SEC Defensive Player of the Year and consensus first-team All-American.
Sam’s revelation is brave and ground-breaking, as he attempts to make it in a league that has never had an active openly gay player.
He should be praised, for his courage could lead the way for other publicly homosexual athletes to receive professional opportunities, and congratulated, for being comfortable with who he is despite the uncertainty and discrimination he likely has faced and will continue to face.
His sexuality, however, says nothing about his ability to play football, which is what ultimately puts him in position to break an NFL barrier.
There are likely to be some NFL teams, citing their concerns of “distraction,” who will remove Sam from their boards, but his draft stock should ultimately be determined by what he can do on the football field. While some players should fall down draft boards due to legitimate off-field concerns (arrests, suspensions, etc.), Sam’s off-field lifestyle should not be considered harmful or detrimental.
If anything, Sam’s announcement should be viewed as a sign of his leadership. He has knowingly subjected himself, at a time where the spotlight was already going to be bright upon him, to a massive increase in attention and external pressure.
There are, however, legitimate reasons to be concerned about Sam’s game. Despite his collegiate excellence and accolades, concerns about his size, strength, versatility and technical skill set could all keep him from being an early-round selection.
Tale of The Tape
Height: 6’1 5/8”
Hand Width: 9 1/8”
Arm Length: 33 1/4”
Wingspan: 80 1/4”
*All measurables from Senior Bowl weigh-ins
+ Accelerates well off snap
+ Closing speed to make plays often in pursuit
+ Naturally arcs into the backfield
+ Can split blockers with his quickness
+ Good at ripping as an edge rusher
+ Has a knack for making clutch plays
- Misses tackles he should make in pursuit
- Overruns too many plays
- Consistently looks to get into backfield, vacates running lanes as a result
- Overly reliant on his initial burst
- Often runs straight at blockers increasing his blockability
- Weak spin move
- Struggles to disengage from blocks
- Very little positional versatility
- Subpar physical strength
- Short for a DE
How Sam Became a SEC Star
If NFL teams are concerned about Sam’s sexuality being a divisive factor in a locker room, they shouldn’t have look any further than his senior season to quell their concerns.
Sam came out to his Missouri teammates in August. That didn’t stop the Tigers from winning the SEC East, their appearance in the Cotton Bowl and 12 games overall. It also didn’t stop Sam from having a career year, in which he compiled 11.5 sacks and 19 total tackles for loss after compiling just 9.5 sacks and 17 tackles for loss in his first three seasons.
Sam’s forte is his ability to explode into the backfield. He accelerates quickly off the line of scrimmage, so he can get right by a blocker when he correctly anticipates a snap. He is most effective around the edge, and does a great job of arcing into the center of the backfield to make plays. In pursuit, he has terrific closing speed and can catch moving targets.
As the statistics show, there were plenty of examples of Sam making big plays in the backfield in 2013, but his last big play, a strip sack that led to a game-clinching fumble return touchdown against Oklahoma State in the Cotton Bowl, was arguably his best.
*Video courtesy of Draft Breakdown, screenshots taken and illustrated by author.
That play was one of his most memorable because it made a big impact on a big stage, but it also demonstrates all the traits that made Sam one of the nation’s most impactful pass-rushers in his superb senior season.
He got a great jump off the line, then beat Oklahoma State right tackle Chris Ghrisby around the edge with great acceleration, a natural arc to the backfield and strong ripping with his inside hand under Ghrisby’s outside shoulder. He closed on the quarterback with speed, then did a great job getting his hand on the ball to knock it free from Cowboys quarterback Clint Chelf.
At Missouri, Sam’s explosiveness didn’t help him only as a pass-rusher, but also in his ability to burst by defenders to crash into the middle of the backfield and make stops against the run. Whether he can be more than a situational pass-rusher at the next level, however, is uncertain.
Why Sam Probably Won’t Be an Early-Round Pick
Every SEC Defensive Player of the Year since 2004 has been selected in the first two rounds, and all since 2006 have been first-round picks. Sam is unlikely to meet either of those criteria, and despite the faux scandal that will likely be made out to be on draft weekend, it’s because he doesn’t project to be one of the 64 best football players in this year’s draft class.
Sam’s athleticism should translate to the NFL, but there are issues throughout his game that could limit his professional success unless he continues to develop.
Though his explosion off the snap and pass-rushing ability enable him to make many big plays, he doesn’t seem to know when not to use it. This can be a big issue for Sam as a run defender. While he occasionally makes big plays in the backfield, he lacks gap discipline, consistently overrunning plays and vacating running lanes.
Even when he does stay at the line of scrimmage, he is rarely much of a presence against the run. Blockers have often been able to redirect him and/or drive him away from running plays, and though he occasionally blows up a play in the backfield, opposing runners usually just run away from him without much trouble.
Nonetheless, Sam should be able to help an NFL team as a situational pass-rusher, but even in that capacity, he has flaws that could keep him from matching his collegiate success.
While his initial burst is great, he tends to be overly reliant upon it. He can rip by blockers when he beats them off the snap, but struggles to free himself when fully engaged by an opponent. His pass-rushing moves can continue to develop, while he can also bulk up and get physically stronger, but he also should avoid running straight at blockers as often as he does.
Another area where Sam can improve is his tackling. His statistics from last season could have been even more impressive than they already were, but he missed some opportunities in pursuit by letting a quarterback or ballcarrier slip through his hands.
Though Sam clearly took his game to another level in his senior season, his spike in production was not all because of him. Playing opposite potential first-round draft pick Kony Ealy, Sam had the advantage of frequently drawing single-team blocks and weaker matchups as the left defensive end against right tackles, while the bigger, stronger Ealy would often go up against double-teams and opponents’ best offensive linemen.
All in all, however, Sam’s athleticism gives him promising developmental potential as a pass-rusher, especially considering his production in his final season at Missouri.
The biggest concern for Sam’s projection to the NFL is his versatility, or lack of it.
He is short for a defensive end by NFL standards at less than 6’2”. His physical measurables indicate that he might be best suited to play outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense, but a move to linebacker in any scheme comes with its own issues. He has minimal experience in coverage, is an inconsistent tackler as aforementioned, and struggled considerably when he was used as a linebacker during this year’s Senior Bowl practices.
Where Should Michael Sam Be Drafted?
Though a team could take a chance on Sam on Day 2 if it falls in love with his explosive pass-rushing ability, he is most likely to be a Day 3 draft selection this year. Despite flaws in his game and the perhaps-misguided internal concerns that some teams might have, Sam’s production and potential make him well worth a selection between the fourth and sixth rounds.
Regardless of the scheme he is drafted into, Sam will play as an edge defender. He is likely to get his start as a situational pass-rusher, but could emerge as more than a one-trick pony if he can continue to develop his game throughout his rookie season.
For a team that could use a rushing specialist for its pass defense, has the coaching in place to develop Sam properly and is prepared to handle the inevitable media onslaught, Sam could prove to be a value selection in the mid-to-late rounds. Potential fits for the Missouri product include the Atlanta Falcons, Minnesota Vikings, Tennessee Titans, New York Jets and Green Bay Packers.
He might even be a consideration for the Buffalo Bills, who could be in the market for another defensive end. They would likely look for a bigger, stronger player at the position, however, as Sam’s most likely projection to the Buffalo defense would be as a poor man’s version of Jerry Hughes.