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Despite Underwhelming Combine, Michael Sam Has as an NFL Future as Edge-Rusher

Michael Conroy/AP Images
Chris TrapassoAnalyst IFebruary 24, 2014

Michael Sam took the field on Monday morning at the 2014 NFL Scouting Combine and frankly, he didn't have a strong performance. 

While NFL general managers, scouts and head coaches weren't necessarily expecting him to test amazingly well in the 40-yard dash or in the on-field drills, Sam's numbers were disappointing compared to his peers. 

Here's a look at his official combine numbers: 

Michael Sam's Combine Results
HeightWeightArm Length40-Yard Dash10-Yard SplitVertical JumpBroad JumpBench
6'2"26133 1/8"4.911.7225 1/2"9'6"17
NFL.com

The most glaring knock on Sam's performance was his lack of explosion, which is vital for a pass-rusher at the NFL level.

For perspective on his 1.72 10-yard split—which, for an edge player is much more telling than the full 40-yard dash—Syracuse defensive lineman Jay Bromley had the same split at 6'3" and 306 pounds.

Princeton defensive tackle Caraun Reid, who measured in at 6'2", 302 pounds, had a 10-yard split of 1.69 seconds. 

But obsession over combine numbers—good or bad—isn't the proper way to go about the scouting process.

However, quite simply, Sam's lack of burst while donning Under Armour gear on Lucas Oil Stadium's turf solidified what he routinely demonstrated on film. 

Greg A. Bedard of Monday Morning Quarterback wrote an extensive profile on Sam after watching 12 Missouri games from the 2013 season. 

This was his conclusion:

Sam was a good player for one season in college. He was productive, so the accolades he received were earned. A majority of his production came in three games against inferior competition without a need to show much of a pass-rushing repertoire—it’s difficult to project a position for him on the next level.

Bedard went on to write, "Sam would project to be no better than a mid- to late-round pick. He could go undrafted. To my eyes Sam is decidedly average, with nothing exceptional about his game."

 

Sam's NFL Fit

So where does Sam fit in the NFL? Does he fit in the NFL?

To answer the latter question—yes, he does. There's a place for him, as a situational "edge-rusher." The quotation marks are necessary, because he can fit as a 3-4 outside linebacker, although many believe his limited athleticism and relatively stiff hips mean he won't be able to cover in space.

While he very well may struggle when asked to and drop into an assigned zone after the snap, consider this from Pro Football Focus' Steve Palazzolo:

A reminder that most 3-4 OLBs only drop into coverage a handful of times per game. Nice skill to have, not a deal breaker.

— Steve Palazzolo (@StevePalazzolo) February 24, 2014

Manny Lawson of the Buffalo Bills, Connor Barwin of the Philadelphia Eagles and Calvin Pace of the New York Jets were the only 3-4 outside linebackers who dropped into coverage more than 200 times during the regular season in 2013, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).

The 26 3-4 outside linebackers who played at least 50 percent of their respective team's defensive snaps this past year averaged rushing the passer on a robust 81.61 percent of their plays.   

Furthermore, all but three 3-4 outside linebackers were asked to rush the quarterback on at least 75 percent of their defensive snaps. 

While having "coverage skills" and the ability to move somewhat fluidly in space is much more important for an outside linebacker playing in a 3-4 scheme than a defensive end in a 4-3 alignment, 3-4 outside linebackers don't cover receivers, tight ends and running backs very often.

Rogelio V. Solis/Associated Press

To give Sam the opportunity to potentially draw tight ends and fullbacks as blockers instead of left or right tackles, a stand-up 3-4 outside linebacker position might suit his limited skill set best.

Then again, he could play defensive end in a 4-3 defense, too. 

At 6'2", 261 pounds, Sam's legitimately a "tweener" strictly from a size perspective.

But more critical than his label or specific scheme fit is the frequency in which he should see the field. He's not big or strong enough at the point of attack to man any edge defensive line position on run downs or for long stretches.

To maximize his effectiveness, Sam must be utilized as a situational pass-rusher only. Right now, he exclusively uses the speed rush to get to the quarterback and, due to his smaller size and ability to bend and rip, on some occasions he can create disruption.

Also, because Sam will likely be taken after the third round, he needs to be willing to pay his NFL dues as a special-teamer to begin his career. 

He isn't a refined pass-rusher, he has a hybrid defender's body and isn't a very dynamic athlete. 

But he plays with a high motor and demonstrated the ability to dip around the edge to pressure the quarterback in the SEC this past season. 

Michael Sam should stick on an NFL roster as a sub-package edge-rusher—that type of player won't be going out of style any time soon. 

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