Even though he will have to wait a long time to hear his named called at the 2014 NFL draft, defensive end Michael Sam is an intriguing pro prospect because of his performance in the SEC that resulted in being named Defensive Player of the Year in 2013.
Of course, Sam's journey to the NFL will get a lot more attention for him being the first openly-gay player than anything he does on the field. He announced his sexuality in a February interview with ESPN's Chris Connelly.
"I understand how big this is," Sam said. "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."
As big as the buzz for Sam will be given the media storm his coming out caused, there are significant flaws to his game that make an NFL future difficult to predict. Here is a look at what the Missouri standout has to offer pro football, what his limitations are and what the outlook is.
Sam's best attribute is the one thing that could get him drafted: Pass rushing. He was a force at Missouri in 2013 with 19 tackles for loss and 11.5 sacks. NFL teams are always trying to find an advantage off the line of scrimmage with so many teams throwing the ball down the field.
There were also a few positives to be taken away from Sam's work at Missouri's pro day in March.
Albert Breer of the NFL Network noted that Sam's 40-yard dash time was closer to average for a defensive end.
Montreal college director @RUSSLANDE had Michael Sam's first 40 at 4.69. Another high-ranking evaluator here had him at 4.70.— Albert Breer (@AlbertBreer) March 20, 2014
Considering Sam was clocked in the 4.8-4.9 range at the scouting combine, when he was doing interview after interview, the improved time is a huge plus and speaks to how much work he put in.
In Sam's draft profile, ESPN.com's Mel Kiper and Todd McShay (subscription required) noted how strong Sam's work ethic is while acknowledging there were some flags that came up.
Goal oriented. Hard worker that has improved the way he prepares for games. Great effort in weight room. High energy person. Described by multiple NFL scouts as 'hyperactive,' a 'live wire,' 'moody' and occasionally 'mouthy.'
Nolan Nawrocki of NFL.com wrote after the combine that Sam's strengths lie in his ability to attack the edges and play with a high motor at all times.
Sometimes the best thing that a player without the typical measurables and athleticism can do is play with high energy. These are cliches that get used to elevate less-talented players, but they can be apt.
Unfortunately there are a lot more cons than pros used to describe Sam leading up to the NFL draft. Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel wrote that NFL personnel don't view him as much of a prospect.
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.
Three scouts from clubs using the 4-3 defense said emphatically that Sam didn't fit their scheme. Conversely, two scouts from teams using the 3-4 defense said emphatically that Sam didn't fit their scheme.
That's about the consensus you will find from analysts, as well. He's clearly a 3-4 linebacker, at best, because of his ability to get off the edge and rush the passer, but without the versatility to do anything else, it's hard to see how he fits on a roster.
It's not often you will find a 6'2", 261-pound player who runs a slow 40 time, below-average vertical jump (25.5 inches) and three-cone drills (7.80 seconds). And those are below-average times for a defensive end, so imagine what it says about his stock as a linebacker.
Sometimes the package of tools just doesn't match what kind of person you are, as Michael David Smith of Pro Football Talk noted:
My view on Michael Sam: Inspiring person, mediocre-at-best prospect.— Michael David Smith (@MichaelDavSmith) May 7, 2014
The best thing that can be said about Sam is he was dominant in the SEC for a season, but prior to 2013 he had just 9.5 sacks in three seasons with Missouri. He's going to work as hard as anyone to succeed in the NFL, but that can only carry you so far.
What's Michael Sam's role in the NFL going to be?
Sam's upside in the NFL is limited because of his size and lack of a natural position, but there's always room for an edge-rusher on a roster. He has to convince teams that his power will play against NFL offensive linemen after being drafted.
The best possible role for Sam, at least early in his career, would be as a third-down player. That takes the pressure off him to play against the run, where bigger tackles and guards are going to give him fits.
There's not a lot of hype in Sam's corner from NFL personnel leading into the draft, so don't sit in front of the television on Thursday or Friday expecting to hear Sam's name called. He might sneak into the second day to a team with a lot of picks (San Francisco, St. Louis, New York Jets).
Going to a team that doesn't have a lot of depth on the defensive line or outside linebacker position is Sam's best path to finding the field as a rookie.
Note: Combine stats courtesy of NFL.com unless otherwise noted.
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