Combine Drills, Eye Test Crucial for Michael Sam to Prove He Can Be NFL LB

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksNFL AnalystFebruary 24, 2014

ATHENS, GA - OCTOBER 12:  Michael Sam #52 of the Missouri Tigers recovers a fumble for a touchdown against the Georgia Bulldogs at Sanford Stadium on October 12, 2013 in Athens, Georgia.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

There isn't a more talked-about player at the 2014 NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis than Missouri defensive end Michael Sam.

Much of the media maelstrom around Sam, of course, revolves around his recent bombshell interview and quest to become the first openly gay active player in the NFL. It's one of the biggest stories in all of sports, a story so big that Greg Doyel of CBS Sports wonders "if the overexposure that killed the career of Tim Tebow will do the same to Michael Sam."

However, of even more interest to scouts at the combine than Sam's personal life and the attention surrounding it is Sam's ability to not only play football at the highest level, but also do so at a different position.

A Star at Missouri, but Not in Mobile

Sam certainly had no problems playing defensive end at Missouri.

The 6'2", 261-pound Sam was the leader of one of college football's best defenses in 2013, pacing the Tigers with 11.5 sacks.

Michael Sam 2013
per CFBStats

In fact, Sam finished the 2013 campaign at Missouri in about as emphatic a manner as possible, with a strip-sack in the Cotton Bowl that sealed a 41-31 win for the Tigers.

It was a season filled with accolades for Sam, including All-American and SEC Defensive Player of the Year.

However, as the calendar turned from 2013 to 2014, storm clouds began to gather.

Given Sam's relatively diminutive size for an end, scouts asked Sam to make the switch to outside linebacker at January's Senior Bowl.

As Mark Dulgerian of Optimum Scouting told Terez Paylor of The Kansas City Star, the transition was a disaster.

I feel like scouts came into the week saying 'We know what he can do with his hand in the ground, but with how he looks, we want to see him standing up. They tried him all over the place and he never really found an identity or comfort level that guys find during the week. It's tough to play in a spot you're not comfortable with in front of all these NFL teams and learn it in three days. But luckily NFL teams are smart and they know what he can do from three-point stance. They tried it, and the experiment didn't work out.

As Joseph Person of The Charlotte Observer reports, the Senior Bowl was also where talk of Sam's sexuality among reporters and scouts picked up, talk that eventually led to Sam's interview with ESPN and The New York Times.

Some Dissension Among Scouts

Granted, one bad week in Alabama doesn't erase a great year in the SEC. There are more than a few scouts who feel Sam has the tools to be a productive player in the NFL.

They include Bleacher Report NFL National Lead Writer Matt Miller, who ranks Sam 10th among linebacker prospects in this draft despite his struggles at the Senior Bowl:

Sam is a proven pass-rusher, and he gets into the backfield with knifing speed and smart hand use. He'll need to transition once in the NFL, but his ability to frustrate quarterbacks is well-documented.

Rob Rang of CBS Sports also lauds Sam's ability to get to the passer with regularity:

Uses his natural leverage advantage well, keeping his legs driving to overpower much bigger opponents on the bull-rush, while also mixing in effective rip and club moves to keep blockers' hands off his chest. Accelerates smoothly and closes in a flash, showing good power for the knockdown and technique to wrap securely.

Rang draws a best-case comparison between Sam and Elvis Dumervil of the Baltimore Ravens, who was similarly labeled a "tweener" entering the NFL.

However, Rang also offers that Sam is "not quite the sum of his parts due to size and flexibility limitations," and that's where Sam's draft stock gets into trouble.

Michael Sam 2014 NFL Draft Rankings
Ranker/SitePos. RankOVR RankProj. Round
Matt Miller/Bleacher Report10923-4
Rob Rang/CBS Sports111103-4
Todd McShay/ESPN131234-5
Eric Galko.Optimum Scouting18NR*6
Charlie Campbell/Walter Football151274-6
* Not listed on "Big Board"

Sam isn't very big, or very long, or especially fast, or exceptionally fluid. His lack of length could portend problems with NFL blockers, and the lack of athleticism led to Sam looking stiff in drills as a linebacker.

After studying all of Sam's 2013 tape, Sports Illustrated's Greg Bedard came away unimpressed. Although he conceded that Sam "produced big time," Bedard goes on to write Sam "lacks pass rush moves" and looked "below average" in run defense:

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.

There's an awful lot of real estate between the third round and undrafted.

A Lot to Prove on the Field

At the risk of sounding overly dramatic, there probably isn't a player with more on the line heading into the combine than Michael Sam.

Yes, there will be many, many questions to answer, both from the media and NFL teams. Clubs want to see if Sam can handle the pressure that's coming. They also want to see how high the media turns up said pressure, because as Doyel points out, a media circus could be just as detrimental to Sam's career as potential trouble with narrow-minded teammates and fans.

If Saturday's interview session with reporters was any indication, Sam will do fine in that regard. As Stephen Holder of The Indianapolis Star reports, Sam shined during the interview.

"He was disarming, funny and direct," Holder said "even while discussing an intensely personal topic."

However, it's just as important (if not more so) that Sam perform well in drills, especially those involving speed and agility.

Bedard writes that Sam is expected to run in 4.7-second range at the combine, which is comparable to several 3-4 outside linebacker prospects in recent years, including LaMarr Woodley of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Trent Cole of the Philadelphia Eagles.

The closer Sam can come to that benchmark, the better his chances of going on Day 2 or early on Day 3 in May's draft.

It's also critical that Sam perform well in the short-shuttle, agility and position drills. Sam needs to demonstrate better burst off the snap and show teams some aptitude at playing standing up.

That's a skill that can be improved with practice, though, and Sam's pedigree will probably be enough to merit a late flier at the very least. Maybe it will be a team looking down the road at linebacker, or a club like Seattle or New England that utilizes the "Leo" pass-rusher.

At this point, there's a lot we don't know about Sam's NFL future. What we do know is that the next few days will play a big part in how it gets started, and it won't be hard to find out how it's unfolding.

Just follow the crowds.

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