Missouri defensive end Michael Sam made waves on Sunday night when he announced that he’s gay. Since then, there’s been a whirlwind of scrutiny, mostly relating to whether or not the NFL is ready for a gay player.
Before any of that happens, though, Sam needs to be drafted. He had a very productive career with the Tigers, capping it off in 2013 by racking up 11 1/2 sacks, winning SEC Defensive Player of the Year and earning first-team All-American honors. But how good is Sam, and when will he hear his name called in May’s NFL draft? Let’s take a look at Sam’s scouting report, based solely on football:
Positives: Sam does one thing very well -- get to the quarterback. He does most of his damage on the edge, usually as a left end lined up at the seven-technique (on the inside shoulder of the tight end). He gets a good jump off of the line of scrimmage, and is surprisingly powerful for his 6-2, 255-pound frame.
Sam utilizes a good rip move to disengage with a blocker and get into the backfield. He’s not as fast as some of his peers, but he’s got enough speed to flush quarterbacks out of the pocket or chase down running backs.
In addition, he uses his compact frame to create leverage against bigger blockers. That allows him to split gaps on stunts, which were called fairly often in Missouri’s defense.
Negatives: At 6-2 and 255 pounds, Sam is undersized for an NFL defensive end. That lack of size makes him a “tweener” -- too small to be an every-down defensive end, too raw to play outside linebacker.
That second part was evident during Senior Bowl workouts in January. Sam reportedly struggled to adapt to a stand-up linebacker role, leading some to wonder if he would be able to handle the transition at the next level.
Also, Sam’s pass-rushing moves are limited aside from his rip. No matter what position he plays at the next level, he’ll need to develop a more advanced repertoire to shed blockers.
Projection: It’s not unrealistic to suggest that Sam could go anywhere from the third to the fourth round (I had him as a second-rounder at linebacker, though that ranking came before the Senior Bowl). He might be a one-trick pony, but he does that trick well enough to potentially make an impact at the next level.
However, his on-field success will depend on how he’s utilized. Any team that drafts Sam as a 3-4 outside linebacker must be willing to put in the time to teach him the nuances of the position and deal with the growing pains, even if it means he doesn’t play much in 2014. Otherwise, he may be best suited as a rotational end in a 4-3 who comes in on obvious passing situations, which would make him more of a fourth- or fifth-round selection.