This is the second in a series of articles examining questions the New England Patriots will have to answer in the run-up to free agency on March 11.
University of Missouri defensive end Michael Sam, a 2013 SEC Co-Defensive Player of the Year, made national headlines this month when he announced that he was gay—just ahead of next week's NFL Combine. If he makes the 53-man roster for any NFL team, he would be the first openly gay player in NFL history.
While no team will draft Sam simply because of his announcement, could his decision lead to his being drafted by the New England Patriots?
The Patriots could handle the "distraction"
In the New York Daily News, Manish Mehta wrote this:
Sam’s announcement, while courageous and commendable, may have unwittingly made him toxic to some organizations that believe the risk of distraction far outweighs any possible gains on the field.
It's the Tebow Effect.
Mehta is referring to quarterback-turned-analyst Tim Tebow, who was a polarizing figure during his one season with the New York Jets.
The same Tim Tebow who did not create a media distraction during his brief tenure in New England.
He didn't create one, of course, because the Patriots, and specifically head coach Bill Belichick, wouldn't let it happen. Belichick notably shut down the media obsession over Tebow in a June press conference. Tight end Rob Gronkowski nearly walked out of a CBS Sports interview when he was asked about his former teammate Aaron Hernandez.
All of this is about creating an environment where players are able to focus on their job: winning football games. If Sam were drafted in New England, there would probably be a media flurry for a few days, just as there was with Tebow, and then the Patriots would re-establish their typical media silence.
Shortly after Sam's announcement, an NFL scout tweeted Mike Freeman in agreement with this:
NFL scout texts top 5 best locker rooms for Michael Sam: Seahawks, Patriots, Green Bay, Colts, Giants.— mike freeman (@mikefreemanNFL) February 10, 2014
Former NFL punter Chris Kluwe, an advocate for marriage equality, agreed on The Dan Patrick Show, claiming the best fits for Sam would be the Patriots and the Green Bay Packers.
The Patriots might want to burnish Boston's history of sports equality
Boston has a complicated legacy in terms of racial integration. On the one hand, the Red Sox were actually the last Major League Baseball team to have an African-American player. On the other, as a 2012 ESPN.com article notes, the Celtics were the first NBA team to draft an African-American player and the first to start a game with a lineup consisting entirely of African-American players.
Patriots owner Robert Kraft told the Boston Herald this week, in unambiguous terms, that he has no problem with the Patriots drafting Sam:
“We’re about winning,” Kraft said. “And anyone who can come in here and help us win, I personally don’t care what their ethnic background is, their racial background, the gender preference. If they can help us win, and they’re about team first, then I’m happy to have him here.”
Kraft said he has not spoken with Patriots coach Bill Belichick about the 6-foot-2, 260-pound defensive lineman, but noted that “he knows that I would encourage him if (Sam) can help us win."
How Michael Sam could help the Patriots
Sam was the SEC Co-Defensive Player of the Year in 2013, along with Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley. He had 11.5 sacks and 19 tackles for loss in 2013, the best numbers in the SEC.
The Missouri roster lists Sam at 6'2", 255 pounds. While that's definitely undersized for a 3-4 defensive end, it's nearly the same height and weight as current Patriot Rob Ninkovich, whose contract was just extended through 2016.
CBSSports.com lists Sam as a third- or fourth-round draft pick. Historically, the Patriots have not expected fourth-round picks to be instant starters, so it's easy to see Sam starting off as a situational pass-rusher. If Sam could play 20–30 percent of downs, it would be important for the Patriots. Chandler Jones and Ninkovich led all NFL defensive linemen in snaps taken in 2013, and it would behoove the Patriots to have backups to spell them.
Trying to predict what the Patriots will do in the NFL draft is a fool's errand. But Belichick's statement on Patriots.com about Michael Sam offers some insight (emphasis mine):
We evaluate all the players, including Michael Sam, based on the totality of who they are and who can best contribute to our team and organization, regardless of the matters being discussed today. They all have strengths, they all have weaknesses and no two human beings are identical. Our scouting staff has performed extensive work on Michael, both this season and going back throughout his career. That work will continue through the draft process this spring.
The Patriots don't care what anyone outside the organization thinks about their draft picks. The Patriots drafted Nate Ebner, who played more rugby than football at Ohio State, because they felt he would help the team. The same goes for every other player the Patriots draft.
If the Patriots feel Sam will help them, and he's on the board when the Patriots feel he's worth taking, he'll be drafted.
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