NFL teams have met Michael Sam, the person. They unsurprisingly came away with glowing reviews. But when it comes to Michael Sam, the football player, workouts at the 2014 NFL Scouting Combine proved why some teams have concerns about his acclimation to playing on Sundays.
Sam's drill performances and athletic times were a mixed bag, as the former Missouri standout finished about average among defensive ends. While that's to be expected for a mid-round prospect like Sam—especially given the immense spotlight he's been under since announcing that he is gay—the reaction from NFL teams will be interesting to watch.
Gil Brandt of NFL.com makes a strong point about Sam based off his performance in Indy:
Going into the conbine I thought Michael Sam was a man w/out a position in NFL. His 4.91 today might have confirmed it. #NFLCombine— Gil Brandt (@Gil_Brandt) February 24, 2014
Teams expecting to see a guaranteed superstar in the making were probably disappointed. But for those hoping for splits that put Sam well within the "draftable" range, there is little reason to feel he's fallen off any draft boards. Here's a quick snapshot of how Sam performed the past couple days in Indianapolis:
|Height||Weight||Arm length||Hand size||40-yard dash||Bench press||Vertical Jump||Broad Jump||3-Cone||20-Yard Shuttle||60-Yard Shuttle|
|6'2"||261 lbs||33 3/8"||9 3/8"||4.91 seconds||17||25 1/2"||114"||7.80 seconds|
The number that sticks out most, arguably, is Sam's disappointing performance in the bench press. Those concerned about his strength aren't going to walk away assuaged. Sam's total of 17 reps at 225 pounds was one of the lowest figures among defensive linemen, better than only UCLA's Cassius Marsh.
Even before his historic announcement, Sam's strength and size were question marks dogging his draft stock. At 6'2" and 261 pounds, he is not a prototypical size for a defensive lineman.
However, it's obviously not fair to judge a player's on-field strength based on the bench press. And as pointed out by Ebenezer Samuel of the New York Daily News, Sam's bench press reps weren't all that far off from those of South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney (though way fewer than Pittsburgh's Aaron Donald):
So Aaron Donald with 35 bench-press reps - or 3 less than Jadeveon Clowney (21) and Michael Sam (17) combined.— Ebenezer Samuel (@ebenezersamuel) February 24, 2014
The Clowney comparisons stop there, however. While the South Carolina defensive end ran an unofficial 4.47-second 40-yard dash (4.53 official), Sam's sprint portion was filled with middling times and mistakes. He was whistled three times for mistakes on his starts and ran a 4.79-second unofficial time on his first attempt and 4.84 seconds on his second (4.91 officially).
Among those who participated, Sam's times were far more in line with defensive tackles than defensive ends. Josina Anderson of ESPN, a former track standout at North Carolina, walked away impressed with Sam's form overall as a runner, though:
Sam showed fairly good form on his 40. I would say he leaves his trunk behind him. Needs more of a 90 angle, pull trunk under shoulders.— Josina Anderson (@JosinaAnderson) February 24, 2014
In the eyes of scouts, obviously it's the time that matters more than the form at this point. Those hoping Sam would perform well enough in the peripherals for a move to linebacker were sorely disappointed. He's a bit slow even to slide into the middle—let alone as a stand-up outside pass-rusher. Teams would be able to take advantage of him too easily for that to be a viable option.
Sam performed better than average in the broad jump. His 114-inch leap was equal to that of former Missouri teammate Kony Ealy, an elite athlete expected to be an early-round choice. But the struggles continued for Sam in the vertical, with only three defensive linemen performing worse than his 25.5 inches.
Dane Brugler of CBS Sports pointed out Sam's numbers and graded him out as a situational player at best:
Michael Sam showed at the SR Bowl that he won't be a LB in the NFL. His times today back that up. Nickel rusher, not a lock to make a roster— Dane Brugler (@dpbrugler) February 24, 2014
Sam, along with Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel and Clowney, was among the most talked-about players heading into Indianapolis. Assuming he is drafted or latches on with a team as an undrafted free agent, Sam will be the first openly gay player in NFL history—a landmark many have seen way too long coming.
On point and on message, Sam seemed laser-focused with his on-field performance. Any concerns about his personal life were set aside, with Sam smartly answering but mostly deflecting questions about his sexuality to make it clear he was in Indianapolis as a football player—not a symbol of anything larger (though that's obviously unavoidable).
“I just wish you guys would just see me as Michael Sam the football player instead of Michael Sam the gay football player,” Sam told reporters.
Watching Sam and Brooklyn Nets center Jason Collins, who became the first active openly gay player in the United States' four major professional sports Sunday, it was impossible to not notice the similarities. Both want to be known for what they do on their respective playing fields, not off them. They also showed faith in the proverbial locker-room culture, saying they not only expect teammates to accept them but also change the homophobic language used.
“I’ve been in locker rooms where all kinds of slurs have been said, and I don’t think anyone means it,” Sam told reporters. “I think (people are) a little naive and uneducated, but as time goes on everyone will adapt.”
By all accounts, Sam handled the press and his interviews with teams to perfection. Bleacher Report's Mike Freeman spoke to a team executive who said, "He seemed too good to be true, so I kept trying to find something that seemed off. There was nothing. This guy has no weakness in his character."
That's certainly a major boon to Sam, whose character was not in question prior to the draft but will help define him going forward. The overwhelming sentiment for Sam inside and out of NFL locker rooms has been filled with positivity. When he steps on the field before thousands of opposing fans, though, Sam is bound to hear offensive comments from the unruly and ignorant. The way he's presented himself in Indianapolis is as someone who has prepared himself and is ready to be a professional football player.
When judging Sam in that way, sure, flaws come out. He's not the strongest nor the fastest defensive lineman in this class. Nor does he even have the most polish. But his combination of on-field production, poise in interviews and hard-working disposition firmly maintains the mid-round grade he received coming out of Missouri.
For Sam and those hoping he gets the chance to prove himself on the NFL stage, this wasn't the best performance. But given his production and what scouts knew about him coming in, it's hard to call his trip to Indy a complete disaster either.
Note: Official times have not been released for the shuttle drills at this time. All combine results courtesy of NFL.com's results tracker.
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