I knew very little about Michael Sam until Sunday night, when the draft-bound Missouri defensive end announced he is gay. (I don’t have time to watch much college football during the NFL season aside from a few big games here and there.) I read a few of the stories about his announcement, but that was the extent of my knowledge about Sam.
On Monday morning, my boss, Peter King, called with an edict: “Don’t talk to any scouts or general managers. Just find as much tape as you can on Michael Sam, watch it and write what you think.”
Several hours, 12 games and 922 Missouri defensive snaps later (I couldn’t get my hands on the Indiana and Kentucky games), I feel I have a firm grasp on the 6-1 ½, 260-pound Michael Sam, NFL draft prospect. Film doesn’t care whether you’re gay or straight, black or magenta: You are what you show on the field.
Here’s what I learned:
He plays hard. When Sam is on the field, he’s always engaged and plays to the whistle. Even though that aspect of his game isn’t extraordinary (other players have higher motors), it’s a solid NFL foundation. However, there is one important aspect to consider: Missouri plays with a strict defensive line rotation. Sam played 58 percent of the snaps in the 12 games I watched. That’s a bit of a double-edged sword, depending on your point of view. On one hand you could say that Sam could have put up even better stats than his 11.5 sacks and 7.5 additional tackles for a loss if the rotation weren’t so strict. On the other hand you could say, “Well, he should put up those kinds of stats and play to the whistle since he plays less than NFL starters. He received more than enough rest during a game.” I lean towards the latter because …
Missouri’s defense has better players than Sam. If Sam was a standout, you would see the Missouri coaches break from the rotation late in the game to get the best players on the field. That didn’t happen, and it stood out in the must-win finale against Texas A&M. On the Aggies’ final three possessions in a 21-21 game, Sam played five of nine snaps. It could be argued that Sam is the fourth-best pass rush prospect on the Tigers. Right end Kony Ealy, who could be a top-10 pick this year, drew much more attention from offenses and had to face the opponent’s best tackle, on the left side of the offensive line. Markus Golden, Sam’s backup on the left side, will be drafted higher than Sam when he enters the draft a year from now. Golden could be a star. He is more athletic and faster than Sam, and watching the Tigers play, I thought Golden was better. There could be other factors as to why he played behind Sam, including Sam’s leadership and smarts. Or perhaps the Missouri coaches didn’t want Golden, a junior-college transfer, to start, in order to increase his chances of staying another season. Sophomore Shane Ray is also more athletic than Sam, a quality valued on special teams at the next level. Same goes for senior end/outside linebacker Brayden Burnett.
Sam produced big time, but… There’s no question that Sam had major production this season, as he led the SEC in sacks and tackles for a loss (which includes sacks). This is probably why he was named SEC defensive player of the year by the media, and co-DPOY (with Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley) by the coaches. However, you have to look at the circumstances of his production. Namely, most of it came in three games of a four-game stretch against inferior competition: Arkansas State (three sacks), Vanderbilt (three sacks) and Florida (three sacks). Sam had a total of a half-sack in his final six games, until he made a huge play on basically the final play of the Cotton Bowl. As Oklahoma State was driving for a game-tying field goal or game-winning touchdown, Sam made a sack-strip that was returned by Ray for a touchdown. Sam beat right tackle Chris Grishby, who took a false step and was a beat late coming out of his stance. Of the 12 games I watched it was by far the biggest play Sam made all season. (The half-sack Sam had against Texas A&M would not be counted as such in the NFL: Aggie quarterback Johnny Manziel left the pocket, although not on a designed run, and clearly had become a runner. The “sack” was mostly made by Ealy and Matt Hoch, with Sam coming in late.)
So basically in his final five games plus 40 snaps against Oklahoma State—the best competition Sam faced all season—he had no splash plays. The right tackles he faced (as a left end he didn’t go against Texas A&M left tackle Jake Matthews, a projected top-10 pick) in that stretch were more of what he will see in the pros. The right tackles he beat up to gain his production likely wouldn’t be on NFL training-camp rosters. Four of his sacks came with lesser opponents desperate and behind by large margins in the fourth quarter, in obvious passing situations. In addition, Florida’s offensive line was one of the worst I’ve ever seen. Lastly: Sam’s sack against South Carolina in overtime was on an unblocked stunt.
He lacks pass rush moves. As a pass rusher, Sam has one move: a decent, if inconsistent, first step, with a little giddy-up so he can get home on a straight line either around the edge or on a quick stunt inside. But if he’s pushed around in the slightest off the ball, he doesn’t make plays, because—from what I saw—he doesn’t have a good counter move. Of his first 10 sacks of the season, only once was he engaged with a blocker and defeated him (first sack against Vanderbilt). The rest were seven speed rushes around the end against inferior competition, and two when he wasn’t blocked. Sam showed little ability to convert speed to power on his rush, which is one of the most important traits in a good NFL rusher: speed to gain leverage and then the strength to win the play after that. I do think he has some of that somewhere—Sam plays with strong hands and shows good functional strength—but it’s going to have to be developed by a good NFL defensive line coach. He has two pass-rush techniques he incorporates: a dip on the edge, and the occasional hand slap of the tackle. He will need more to succeed in the NFL.
Part of Sam’s limitation with the pass rush is he doesn’t play with a natural instinct for the ball. He’s very good at being assignment-sure and in the right spot immediately after the snap, indicating he takes coaching well, but after that the game does not appear to come naturally to him. It’s a constant theme on tape that he often falls for zone-read play-fakes and also struggles to diagnose screens. A player with limited athletic ability can be a viable player if he has exceptional awareness and instincts, but that does not show up on tape for Sam.
He doesn’t have an obvious NFL position. To me, Sam looked below average against the run. He can’t get off blocks when engaged, and I saw him get cut several times by offensive linemen. For that reason it’s tough to see him as a 4-3 end. Against Auburn, a premier team, Sam was often blocked, and effectively, by a fullback. That’s a bad sign if Sam is going to have to convert to standup linebacker in the NFL. Plus, rookies in the NFL most often have to be special-team stalwarts, and those are most often very good athletes. The marginal athleticism that I saw will be a problem in Sam’s fight to earn a roster spot.
His most successful path to long-term NFL employment could be as a developmental prospect via the practice squad if a team thinks he can make the transition from 4-3 end to 3-4 outside linebacker. I don’t see him as a 4-3 end because of his size, stiffness as an athlete and inability to defeat blocks against the run. I also believe Sam does have some potential (if a team would like him to cut a little weight and work extensively with him) as a possible two-down inside linebacker in the 3-4 defense. Maybe he could convert on third down to a pass-rusher on the defensive line. That’s a big projection to make for a draft pick. Some of his most impressive plays happened earlier in the season when he occasionally was used inside at defensive tackle and showed a knack for beating guards with his quickness. So Sam does have some positional versatility if a team is able to work with him and hone his skills.
Sam’s body type reminds me of three NFL players. In terms of body type, Sam reminds me of three players: LaMarr Woodley (Steelers), Terrell Suggs (Ravens) and Trent Cole (Eagles). Those are very good models. All three are 3-4 outside linebackers, and they exceeded 4.7 seconds in the 40-yard dash. Sam is expected to run in the 4.7 range at the Scouting Combine or his on-campus workout—perhaps as high as a 4.8. Playing those positions is not all about how fast you can run. However, what made Woodley (second round in 2007) and Cole (fifth round in ’05) stand out was their short-area quickness. Woodley (4.42) and Cole (4.22) ran very good times in the short 20-yard shuttle. If Sam can show that at the combine (his film indicates he will not) then he has potential to make it on the next level.
It’s almost unfair to mention Suggs’ name in this conversation as the 10th overall pick in ’03, for several reasons: he plays with outstanding strength (especially against the run) and his production at Arizona State was phenomenal. But he did run a 4.84 in the 40-yard dash, so it’s an example of speed not mattering. And if Sam is to make it in the NFL, he’s going to have to be that kind of strong-at-the-point-of-attack player who can get home on the pass rush.
My conclusion. Sam was a good player for one season in college. He was productive, so the accolades he received were earned. But being a good college player and becoming a good NFL player are two different things (see Tim Tebow). Sam did well for Missouri with a lot of talent around him. A majority of his production came in three games against inferior competition without a need to show much of a pass-rushing repertoire. He doesn’t show much of what the NFL looks for on special teams, and it’s difficult to project a position for him on the next level. For those reasons, Sam would project to be no better than a mid- to late-round pick. He could go undrafted. To my eyes Sam is decidedly average, with nothing exceptional about his game—though he will be helped by the fact that this draft is not deep with pass rushers, and those are always needed.
But there’s a saying in the NFL: It only takes one team. One team that sees Sam’s ability better than I do, one team that believes that his courage in announcing he is gay before the NFL Scouting Combine is a trait that can help them. On draft weekend, nothing is a surprise. And draft position doesn’t really matter all that much; many undrafted players go on to have long and successful NFL careers. They just need to land in the right situation, with the right coaches, to unlock their potential. It’s happened before, and famously with undersized defensive players like London Fletcher. I don’t see it, but it could happen with Sam.