+Good football speed
+Good pass rusher
+Above average quickness
+Protects his side as a pass rusher
+Gives offensive linemen no surface area to block as a pass rusher
+Solid length given his height
+Can alter the routes of running backs
-The ultimate tweener
-Square, Brandon Graham like frame
-Offers very little as a run stopper
-Little potential in coverage
-3rd down specialist barring a beyond seamless transition to linebacker
-Needs to work on his hand usage
First things first: kudos, Michael Sam. I have nothing but the utmost respect for you. It took incredible courage to do what you did. For the record, I don’t believe that Michael Sam’s sexual orientation will be an obstacle to him playing in the NFL. It’s as simple as this: people are more tolerant of gays now than African Americans in 1947, yet Jackie Robinson’s race didn’t stop him from playing baseball. The Jackie Robinson comparison seems a little crazy at first glance, but it really isn’t that far off. Obviously, Sam will not have to deal with the level of hatred and anger that Jackie Robinson encountered. But there’s another difference between Michael Sam and Jackie Robinson: Sam had a choice. No, not to be gay. To be openly gay. He chose to risk everything, his career, his family, his friends, etc., so he could be comfortable in his own skin and pave the way for gays to play football and other team sports for years to come. Robinson didn’t have that choice. Who is to say that Jackie Robinson wouldn’t have been a closeted black man if such a thing was possible? Why wouldn’t Jackie Robinson have kept it a secret? It would have saved him from years of insults from fans, players, etc. I would have done it if I were him. Robinson is the epitome of strength, pride, and self-control, as he maintained his composure and stayed focused despite all the cruelty and anger directed toward him. Prejudice dissipated as no one could fault his actions. Sam isn’t going to have that much pressure on him. But he chose to put pressure on himself, chose to give himself the responsibility of being professional football’s first openly gay player, and that is why he is the picture of bravery.
However, I’m writing as a scout. And, as a scout, I must be relentlessly objective. I must leave all personal feelings aside. I personally believe that, even beyond the cocaine problem, that Colt Lyerla is a horrible human being. But as a football player, he’s like Aaron Hernandez except he can really block (let’s hope that’s where the comparison ends). And as a scout, I do believe Michael Sam’s draft stock will be negatively affected by his sexual orientation. Here’s the problem: unless reports that some NFL offensive linemen feel uncomfortable with the idea of blocking a gay player are true (that joke courtesy of SportsPickle), Michael Sam’s sexual orientation can only hurt his draft stock. No player, coach, or general manager wants a gay player on their team. If you’re tolerant toward homosexuals, you’re indifferent toward the notion of a gay player. If you feel uncomfortable with homosexuality, you’d be against having Michael Sam on your team. In the best case scenario, everyone in the NFL is completely tolerant and comfortable with homosexuality, and he will be treated like any other player. But even in this best case scenario, Michael Sam’s homosexuality doesn’t change his draft stock. In the more likely scenario, a minority of NFL GMs will move Sam down a few spots on their draft boards because either they feel uncomfortable with his sexual orientation or they think their players will be. I really think the impact on his draft stock will be minimal, but it will be hurt a little bit.
Another thing I’d like to mention; if you are reading this article as someone who is interested in Michael Sam but not a real draft geek, if Michael Sam doesn’t get drafted, don’t assume the NFL is bigoted. After Sam’s underwhelming combine, he’s probably seen as a 5th round pick among most teams. But there is a ton of variability on draft day. A guy who is projected to be a 5th round pick really only gets drafted 80% of the time. NFL teams frequently draft no named small school prospects in the late rounds, many of whom are completely unknown to most. Sam could go as high as the 3rd round or not get drafted at all, but, if the latter happens, do not assume it is because of his sexual orientation. And even if he does get drafted, late round rookies can be cut, and I’d say Sam has roughly a 50% chance of making an NFL roster.
Sam has below average measurables. The funny thing is, a couple years ago, Sam probably would have been an early round pick, but NFL teams are starting to realize that you can’t just draft a short productive college defensive end and assume he’ll move to 3-4 outside linebacker without a problem. It’s not that simple. It’s not just whether or not the player has a physical skill set suitable to outside linebacker. It’s a huge transition. Linebackers line up in a two point stance, see the play from completely different angles, have to learn how to take proper angles in pursuit, have to seal the outside, must be prepared to read the blocking scheme so they can figure out when they are going to get hit, etc. It’s a big change, and it’s ridiculous to assume that guys like Brandon Graham, Melvin Ingram, and Jerry Hughes are going to make it overnight, if at all (yet Dee Ford remains a likely first round pick for some reason). At 6’2, Sam is simply too short for defensive end at the NFL level. His arms were of above average length for his size, but he still won’t be able to see through blocks at the NFL level. His inability to see through blocks stems from obvious origins; he can’t tell what is happening behind the taller, wider guy in front of him, even at the college level. At 261lbs, he could actually afford to lose weight if he wants to play 3-4 outside linebacker, but right now, he has a square, stocky build.
Sam is good against the pass. First of all, many of his coverage concerns are overrated. You can hide a 3-4 outside linebacker in coverage. Just look at what the Buffalo Bills did with Mario Williams this year. Sam by no means has a physical skill set suited for coverage, but he could still play linebacker if he lost 15lbs, which would hopefully loosen his hips a bit, and even if he can’t, it won’t be impossible to hide him in coverage. I don’t think how well he projects in coverage is going to be the deciding factor in terms of his NFL success. What may be a little more worrisome is his quickness from a 2 point stance. He was almost never in a 2 point stance at the collegiate level, and I’ve seen plenty of guys over the years who just aren’t as quick with their hand in the dirt. NFL teams who have had personal workouts with him will undoubtedly try to test his quickness from a 2 point stance, and if he disappoints, his draft stock will definitely suffer. If he does go to a team that runs a 4-3 defense, especially if he isn’t drafted, it probably means he wasn’t very quick from a 2 point stance. From a 3 point stance, Sam explodes off the ball and gets solid leverage as a pass rusher. He isn’t very flexible, so he doesn’t get too low (although his lack of height plays toward his advantage in this respect), but he does a very good job of protecting his side as a pass rusher. It’s important as a speed rusher bend in a fashion as to minimize the surface area of your body relative to the plane of the offensive lineman, making the block as awkward as possible. Sam does a very good job of doing this, and combined with his quickness (note: he is only quick in a straight line, not laterally), he gets very good leverage and results as a speed rusher. He could improve his hand usage and polish his secondary moves, but Sam is definitely a great speed rusher from a 3 point stance. That’s a nice place to start.
Sam is weak against the run. First of all, Sam’s best asset is his pass rushing ability. If he proves that he isn’t very explosive out of a 2 point stance in individual workouts, he will not be an effective pass rusher for a 3-4 team and he will almost certainly go to a 4-3 team. The problem with going to a 4-3 team is that he is pretty hopeless against the run if he’s in a 4-3 defense. Sam’s length is less than ideal, and he’s too short to really see through blocks, which hurts his instincts from that position. This means he rarely even attempts arm tackles and he will occasionally open up huge holes in the B gap as he penetrates too far upfield. He also doesn’t do a great job of sealing the outside nor does he have the strength or length to really penetrate against the run. However, he does do a decent job of at least not getting driven off the ball (even if you can’t make a play, try to at least make the back take a mildly circuitous route around his teammate) and he uses very good technique against traps and pulls, showing a nice wrong-shoulder technique when left unblocked. He lacks body control and he is a mediocre tackler as a result. However, running downs is why in an ideal world he is quick from a 2 point stance and goes to a 3-4 team. He has a slim chance of being an every down player in a 3-4 defense. They will be able to hide him in coverage and he has a chance to turn into an average run defender for the position. His lack of size will not be as much of an impediment to his ability to see through blocks if he is playing linebacker, and if he can learn to read blocking schemes and weave his way through traffic against the run (losing 15lbs wouldn’t hurt), he can become a passable player against the run. Some guys have a knack for this, some don’t, and it’s impossible to tell how well Sam will be able to learn the nuances of defending against the run as a linebacker at this point. He will need to develop very good instincts as a linebacker to be even average against the run given his below average lateral agility and iffy tackling, but if he shows a very good feel for the position, he could become more than a 3rd down specialist. Assuming he is quick enough from a 2 point stance to create pressure playing linebacker (and that’s a big assumption), I give him roughly a 15% chance of developing instincts against the run that are good enough for him to become an every down player.
I wish Michael Sam nothing but the best in his NFL career. I respect him for what he did, and I will root for him forever. He’s a bit underrated because he looks faster on film than his college 40 suggests, but his quickness from a 2 point stance, virtually unknown at this point, could make or break his NFL career. His performance in that respect in individual workouts could be the deciding factor as to whether or not he is drafted.
NFL Comparison: Brandon Graham. Beyond similar college production (although Sam was a bit of a one year wonder) and size, Graham has that same, square build that you see in Michael Sam. Graham was drafted to play defensive end in the Eagles 4-3 defense, which is crazy in hindsight. If you plan on drafting a guy who is 6’1 in the first round, he better be as athletic as Dwight Freeney. No exceptions. Graham was a solid pass rush specialist when the Eagles ran a 4-3, but when they switched to a 3-4 this season, he didn’t create as much pressure but was less over-matched against the run.
Grade: 60 (worthy of a late fourth or early fifth round pick)
Projection: 51 (will be a late fifth to early sixth round pick)