Michael Sam is coming off a strong senior season at Missouri that saw him rack up 48 total tackles and 11.5 sacks. The main reason he's generated a lot of attention leading up to the draft, however, was his decision to come out publicly as a gay athlete.
Sam made the announcement just as the draft process was heating up in February. Chris Connelly of Outside The Lines passed along the defensive end's comments about his choice to make the information public and what it means for the NFL (via ESPN.com):
I am an openly, proud gay man.
I understand how big this is. It's a big deal. No one has done this before. And it's kind of a nervous process, but I know what I want to be...I want to be a football player in the NFL.
If Sam makes a final roster out of training camp and plays in an NFL game, he will become the first openly gay player in the league. His story has brought him far more attention than most players projected to go in the second half of the draft.
The question is whether or not it will have any impact on his draft status. Only those working in front offices around the league know for sure. He's the reigning SEC Defensive Player of the Year, but there are concerns about if his skill set will translate to the next level.
Between the overall uncertainty surrounding this year's draft, a fair debate about exactly how much of an impact Sam could make and the unknown factor of whether teams will shy away do to the hoopla that will follow him, his range of potential landing spots is huge.
Let's check out what the outlook is on both ends of the spectrum for the Missouri star.
Best-Case Scenario: Pittsburgh Steelers in 4th Round
Sam was barely on the NFL radar before his terrific senior season. He never had more than 30 tackles or five sacks in a season. Then he became one of the most improved players in the country en route to his award-winning final collegiate season.
Exactly how far that season will vault him up draft board strictly based on talent is unclear. It's hard to imagine him going much earlier than the fourth round, though. He's a player with one good collegiate season and limited athletic upside.
That said, basically every team in the league is always looking to improve its pass-rushing depth. Players who can come off the edge and attack the quarterback are extremely valuable in today's game, and Sam showed the ability to do exactly that last season.
One other factor in play when it comes to the best-case scenario is landing with a stable organization. A team that has a firm foundation of veterans and a strong structure at the top to make sure the transition is smooth, letting Sam focus purely on football.
The first team that comes to mind is the Pittsburgh Steelers. And when you consider the Steelers finished in a tie for 25th in sacks last season, taking Sam in the fourth round or later could help them fill a void in the defensive line rotation.
Going in the fourth may be a bit optimistic. Richard Deitsch of Sports Illustrated spoke with draft guru Mike Mayock, who said the fifth or sixth round seems more likely:
Whether it's the fourth round or the seventh round, the hope on Sam's end should be just getting drafted. It would show a front office has enough faith in his ability to make an investment in him and improve his chances of making the team.
Worst-Case Scenario: Undrafted
The two biggest problems for Sam are his natural ability and the media attention.
Fellow defensive end Jadeveon Clowney is widely viewed as the best prospect in the 2014 class. Sam actually put up better numbers in 2013 while playing in the same conference, but it's no contest when it comes to athletic potential.
Clowney is a physical monster. He's exactly the type of raw talent every defensive coordinator around the league would love to have on its roster. Sam is a player who's going to do everything in his power to outwork people, but his physical tools aren't on the same level.
As for the media attention, teams don't like dealing with perceived distractions. Wherever Sam lands, a wide media contingent is going to follow and track his every move from the moment he's drafted or signed until final roster decisions are made.
At least once per day the head coach is going to get asked whether Sam will make the squad, and his teammates will be bombarded by questions about his presence. That could be enough to get some teams to simply pass on him.
Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel provided the results of a poll conducted by the outlet, and the results weren't promising for Sam:
The Journal Sentinel polled 21 scouts with national responsibilities asking what round, if any, they would be comfortable selecting Sam.
Three said fifth round. Three said sixth round. Three said seventh round. Five said they would sign him as a free agent. Seven said they wouldn't sign him as a free agent.
Of those polled, 12 of the 21 said they wouldn't draft Sam. While it only takes one team to appreciate what he could provide to the team, it shows there's at least some chance he isn't going to get drafted in any of the seven rounds.
It's possible to spin that as a positive, of course. As an undrafted free agent, Sam would be able to pick an ideal situation. Unfortunately, joining a team for what amounts to a camp tryout is far less of a commitment and wouldn't bode well for surviving final cuts.
The best thing Sam can do is prepare himself for any of a wide range of possibilities. Then he must put that work ethic on display to show why he belongs on the team, whether he was drafted in the middle rounds or signed afterward.