We'll be doing all kinds of draft prospect scouting reports over the next three months, but with the Sunday news that Missouri defensive end Michael Sam decided to publicly declare his sexual orientation, it's probably a good time to introduce you to the player if you haven't seen him before, because you're going to hear a lot about all the other stuff and what it all means.
Sam was named the 2013 SEC Defensive Player of the Year after leading the conference in sacks with 11.5, and tackles for loss with 19. But the fact that he's the first player so awarded in many years who isn't a lead-pipe first-round pick is just as noteworthy as all the other things people will be talking about through the draft and beyond. At 6-foot-2 and 255 pounds, and speed in the 4.7 range, Sam is projected as anything from a second-round talent to an undraftable entity. And now, with this news, it will certainly be hard to separate the player from the noise.
"I don't think football is ready for [an openly gay player] just yet," one NFL player personnel assistant told SI's Pete Thamel and Thayer Evans. "In the coming decade or two, it's going to be acceptable, but at this point in time it's still a man's-man game. To call somebody a [gay slur] is still so commonplace. It'd chemically imbalance an NFL locker room and meeting room."
"That will break a tie against that player," a former NFL general manager said in that same article. "Every time. Unless he's Superman. Why? Not that they're against gay people. It's more that some players are going to look at you upside down. Every Tom, Dick and Harry in the media is going to show up, from Good Housekeeping to the Today show. A general manager is going to ask, 'Why are we going to do that to ourselves?'"
And that's the ultimate issue. Sam is a good player, but he's no Superman. He is exceptional in the way he's handled what had to be a very difficult decision, but in the end it all comes down to the tape.
Pros: Comes off the snap with speed and burst to the outside, and can beat blocks on inside stunts. Gets a good ride on a blocker's inside shoulder and can push people back when he gets a full head of steam. Has decent redirect and recognition ability -- will turn to run and tackle with effort even after he's beaten, though he doesn't always hit the mark. Has enough foot agility to deal with cut blocks. Will work through gaps more like a running back than a defensive end -- has good patience in waiting for things to open up at the line. Gets his sacks more through effort than technique, though the effort is clear and consistent.
Cons: Sam needs to be given free space to really do his thing. He's not an overwhelmingly powerful bull-rusher, nor does he yet possess the array of hand moves and foot fakes that would allow him to elude blockers one-on-one. As a result, he tends to get overwhelmed in the wash of blockers too often. Needs more functional upper-body strength -- tends to lose leverage battles even when he establishes lower pad level. This liability becomes even more pronounced when he slips inside in front adjustments and has to deal with a guard and maybe a center on double-teams -- he can't consistently work through power to make plays. Sam also finds it hard to get a second effective strike on a blocker after he's been stood up on initial impact.
Open-field speed could be an issue at the next level; Sam tends to glide more than he accelerates. Doesn't have the kind of inside counter (think Dwight Freeney) that would allow him to exert pressure after he's been pushed out of the pocket. Lacks "get-up" speed in short spaces and plays will move right by him before he can get there. Hasn't dropped into coverage a lot, though physical limitations make one wonder if he'll be able to do that at an elite level.
Conclusion: Given the nature of Michael Sam's story, he'll be an important NFL individual if he makes it through an NFL training camp. Unfortunately, the nature of his play will leave a lot of teams wondering if he's worth the trouble. That would be true if he was a first-round prospect, but for a guy whose tape shows early third-day talent, things are far more complex. Taking the narrative aside, I think Sam could be a reasonably effective player in a 4-3 defensive line rotation, or a run-side endbacker in a 3-4, if he improves his technique and finds a way to use more pure power on the field. The speed probably is what it is, and that's a problem -- because edge-rushers need more than the burst he currently has, and tweeners who move inside require far more ability to move people than he's shown.
Michael Sam has shown a great deal of courage and self-knowledge in doing what he's done. There's no doubt about that. But his NFL future is far murkier, and that has nothing to do with anything but the ultimate equalizer -- pure talent.