When one takes the time to dig into Michael Sam’s preseason film, the first thing that leaps off the tape is his incredibly high motor.
This should come as no surprise considering Sam has been viewed as this type of player since his days at Missouri. Here’s what Nolan Nawrocki of NFL.com had to say about the 261-pound defensive end in his predraft scouting report:
Good arm length. Anticipates the snap and has a very good initial first step. Plays hard—gives great effort and competes every down. Good on-field intensity and demeanor. Attacks the edges aggressively and motor runs hot. Outstanding weight-room strength—can squat a small house. Very durable.
Some people wondered if that same level of intensity would translate to the NFL. Fortunately for Sam, it has through four preseason games, which means his preseason play showed he can indeed be an effective NFL player.
Let’s go to the tape and examine Sam’s most defining moments from the 2014 preseason.
On this first play, against the Green Bay Packers, take a look at Sam’s get-off on his sack of quarterback Matt Flynn. As soon as the ball was snapped, the rookie pass-rusher was already starting to turn the corner by the time the right tackle was kicking out of his stance.
By no means is Derek Sherrod a starting-caliber tackle in this league, but that shouldn’t take away from Sam’s quickness off the edge. That play you just watched says more about Sam than it does Sherrod.
That play makes it clear Sam has the necessary instincts and reaction time to play in the NFL.
On this second play, versus the Cleveland Browns, pay close attention to Sam’s hand usage and the way he attacks the edge. His quickness and get-off are very similar to the first play we reviewed.
As you can see in the GIF above, Sam explodes off the ball, swats the right tackle’s hands away and finishes rookie quarterback Johnny Manziel off for a six-yard loss.
Prior to this game, head coach Jeff Fisher singled out Sam’s hand usage and how it has gotten better since the St. Louis Rams drafted him in May.
"He’s improving," Fisher said, via Nick Wagoner of ESPN.com. "[Defensive line] coach [Mike] Waufle is doing a great job…with his hand usage and placement things and so, he'll just keep working at it."
It appears Sam took Waufle’s coaching seriously, and he is now reaping the benefits. But Sam being a good pupil wasn't really ever in doubt. In May, he told Mike Garafolo of Fox Sports that Waufle would coach him up and help him shed the "tweener" label.
On this third play, against the New Orleans Saints, focus on Sam’s ability to play the run. Despite Sam not being known for his play versus the run, he does a great job of exploding out of his stance and shooting the gap.
Once the ball is snapped, Sam uses an inside move on the right tackle to work his way up the field. The strong penetration on the play resulted in a stop for no gain on running back Khiry Robinson.
This play eerily resembled one Sam made against the University of Florida last year. In addition to anticipating the snap, he dipped his shoulder on the right tackle and shot the proper gap to stop the ball-carrier for no gain.
Even though those three plays were just a small sample of his overall body of work, they all proved Sam is an effective player who belongs on an NFL roster.
Obviously there will be some growing pains along the way, but that’s normal for any first-year player, especially a seventh-round pick. Here’s what Sam’s Pro Football Focus (subscription required) grade looked like after 133 preseason snaps:
A plus-0.6 overall grade may not be anything to write home about, yet it did end up being the 11th-highest overall grade on the Rams defense during preseason play.
Moreover, Sam had a higher overall grade than Chris Long, Eugene Sims, Kendall Langford, Alex Carrington and Matt Conrath. Preseason or not, production is production, and you can’t argue with the numbers Sam amassed.
In 77 pass-rush snaps, Sam tallied three quarterback sacks, two quarterback hits and four quarterback hurries. That means he averaged a quarterback pressure once every 8.5 pass-rush snaps.
Fellow defensive end Ethan Westbrooks was the only defensive lineman who ended with more quarterback pressures than Sam did. Clearly, statistics aren’t the end-all, be-all, but they do go hand in hand with a player’s tape.
And when the tape matches up with a player’s stat line, there are no questions about skill set. Does that mean Sam’s tape/numbers will translate into a successful regular-season campaign in 2014? No, but it does mean he at least deserves a shot.
Will that shot come with the Rams? If Coach Fisher and general manager Les Snead are smart, it will. But as we know, nothing is guaranteed until Saturday at 4 p.m. ET.
And even then, St. Louis could cut Sam at any time and replace him with someone else. That’s one of the beauties of being a seventh-round pick/fringe player.
Being that far down on the totem pole forces players to earn their spot on a respective team’s roster. The good news is Sam has earned his place in St. Louis.
And if for some reason Sam doesn’t make it with the Rams, there will be a plethora of teams that run a 4-3 defense lined up for his services. The NFL needs more pass-rushers who are productive, which makes keeping Sam even more of a no-brainer for St. Louis.
A tip of the hat to Fisher and Snead for being trailblazers and taking a chance on a guy who was passed over 248 times before he finally heard his name called on May 10.
It’s evident all Sam needed was a chance to show he has what it takes to belong to one of the most coveted fraternities in all of sports.