Michael Sam Can Handle the Spotlight, Now Must Prove He Can Play in the NFL

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksNFL AnalystJuly 17, 2014

USA Today

On Wednesday night, St. Louis Rams defensive end Michael Sam took the stage at the ESPY awards in Los Angeles to accept the 2014 Arthur Ashe Courage Award.

Sam, who is attempting to become the first openly gay player on an NFL roster, gave a speech that was must-see television. It was eloquent, powerful and emotional all in one.

Quite simply, Sam brought the house down:

However, as it often has been since Sam went from just another football player to anything but, the larger issue he's facing is being drowned out by the thunderous applause.

As far as he's come, the hardest part of his journey is only getting started.

One thing's for sure. If there's an athlete who has had a more eventful 2014 than Sam, I'd like to know who it is.

Back in January, he was just Michael Sam, defensive end for the Missouri Tigers. He had just been named SEC Co-Defensive Player of the Year after leading the Tigers with 11.5 sacks. His late strip-sack in the Cotton Bowl sealed a win over Oklahoma State.

Then came the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama. At 6'3" and 255 pounds, most scouts viewed Sam as a 3-4 outside linebacker at the NFL level. Senior Bowl workouts were his first opportunity to show off his skills in front of an audience at that position.

As Shane Hallam of DraftTV.com told Terez Paylor of The Kansas City Star at the time, things did not go well:

He doesn't quite have the size you want in a defensive end, and when he made the switch to linebacker, he just hasn't gotten it. I might be more comfortable with him putting his hand down (and rushing the passer).

As Joseph Person of The Charlotte Observer reported, Mobile is also where the rumblings started regarding Sam's sexuality, which led him to come out in a New York Times interview on February 9.

That revelation was (to no one's surprise) one of the dominant storylines entering the 2014 NFL Scouting Combine. Sam's time in Indy was a tale of two days.

Surrounded by a throng of media during the interview process, Sam was phenomenal, and while he didn't dodge questions about his sexuality, he made it clear that he'd much rather be talking about football.

I wish you guys would ask me, 'Michael Sam, how's football going?' I would love for you to ask me that question, but it is what it is. And I just wish you guys would see me as Michael Sam the football player instead of Michael Sam the gay football player.

The problem is, when it came time to talk about football, Sam didn't fare nearly as well.

Sam's 4.91-second 40-yard dash time was the seventh-worst among defensive ends. His 17 reps on the bench press were the second-fewest. His vertical leap and three-cone drill time were the worst at the position.

Sam finished in the bottom 10 in every drill in which he participated. Simply put, it was a disaster:

The numbers at Missouri's pro day were better, but by this point, many pundits weren't just wondering if Sam could play outside linebacker. They were wondering if he could play in the NFL at all.

With the last round of the NFL draft winding down on May 12, it looked like if Sam was going to get a shot to prove he could, it would be as an undrafted free agent.

Then, with pick No. 249, the Rams took a shot.

As Nick Wagoner of ESPN.com reported, Sam was all about football when speaking to reporters after the draft:

Let me tell you something, if we were playing the Vikings right now, I'd probably have three sacks the first game. Since February and my big announcement, this has been a whole [lot of] speculation of the first openly gay football player, but you know what? It's not about that. It's about playing football.

Can Michael Sam play football? Yes, I can, and the St. Louis Rams know I can. I am going to give everything I've got to the St. Louis Rams to help the Rams win a championship.

The moment my name was called was the single greatest moment of my life.

Of course, America wasn't finished with Sam's sexuality yet. But after the brouhaha from him kissing his boyfriend on national television died down, Johnny Manziel's weekly sojourns to Sin City replaced Sam as the rookie topic du jour.

According to David Morrison of The Columbia Daily Tribune, Sam was grateful to get down to the business of playing football when OTAs got rolling last month:

It's faster. You've got to learn a lot more plays, got to know what you're doing. When the ball's snapped, you've got to react. You've got to know what you're doing.

It's been a long time coming. It felt good to put my helmet on and get out there, grind. I've got to step my game up to compete with this defensive line. I thought our defensive line at Mizzou was pretty tough. This is a whole new level. I've got to up my game.

Teammate Robert Quinn told Morrison he liked what he's seen from Sam so far.

"He's learning his role here. We've got such a deep D-line, he's going to fight for his position. He gives it 110 percent while he's out here," Quinn said. "He's a football player here. That's all that really matters."

Now, with the pads set to go on when Sam and the other rookies report to training camp on July 22, it's that last part that may get Sam into trouble. Because the road gets a lot steeper from here.

For starters, it's one crowded freeway.  Sam didn't exactly land in a situation that screams "opportunity."

St. Louis Defensive Ends 2013
Chris Long857408.5
Robert Quinn8495719
Eugene Sims396272.0
William Hayes354285.0
Per Pro Football Focus

In Quinn and batterymate Chris Long, the Rams have a pair of entrenched starters (and then some). William Hayes is a six-year veteran with starting experience and a dozen career starts. Fourth-year pro Eugene Sims was the only other Rams end to a play a regular-season snap last year.

In other words, Sam is essentially battling fellow rookie Ethan Westbrooks for the fifth spot in a defensive end rotation that went four deep last year.

That doesn't leave much margin for error.

Unfortunately, Sam just doesn't impress as the type of player where little margin for error bodes well.

He's the classic "tweener." Even after adding about 10 pounds, Sam is still on the small side for a defensive end, which could lead to problems with getting overwhelmed by NFL tackles. As Rob Rang of CBS Sports wrote in his scouting report for him before the draft, Sam also "does not possess ideal length and therefore, struggles to separate from blockers once engaged."

Additionally, while Rang lauds Sam's "impressive burst upfield," he isn't especially fast or agile. Simply put, if you can't get through or around the tackle, you're in trouble.

Rang does, however, point out that it isn't unheard of for undersized pass-rushers to succeed as 4-3 defensive ends in the NFL, with a comparison of Sam to Elvis Dumervil of the Baltimore Ravens:

"Few undersized pass rushers are capable of beating the odds like Dumervil but he's the model optimists will point to in projecting Sam to the NFL. Like Dumervil, Sam has an explosive burst and is more powerful than his relatively short frame might suggest."

There are a few other things working in Sam's favor as well.

The first, and most important, is Sam. By all indications, Sam has been 100 percent invested in every minute of every workout to date. He's embraced a role on special teams and told Matthew Florjancic of WKYC-TV he's fully aware there isn't much room for mistakes:

When training camp comes, and I try to compete for a position, then, hopefully, my role will not only be playing on special teams, but also, playing in the game, in the rotation at D-line.

Sometimes, I don't want to say they're smart, but football smart? Yeah. It's fast. It's very fast. Everything is full speed. If you make a mistake, it could cost you that win in practice or that win in the game. You've got to pay attention to the details. You've got to do everything. If you do make a mistake, just do it full speed.

I've been a rookie since I've signed. They treat me like a rookie, and we're all rookies. It still hasn't hit me yet. It's still like a dream. It's very positive. It's very fun. I'm excited to be playing for the Rams and I'm excited to be in the NFL. It's fun.

That attitude (especially in light of all the chaos around him), appears to have impressed his teammates, whether it's Quinn on the practice field or Long after last night's speech, according to TMZ:

I've been hearing a lot of really great feedback. To be able to go up there, when he was nervous I'm sure, and speak about such an emotional topic is impressive. When he's been on the football field, it's been all business ... and the team supports him. He's a great kid.

So much for that rift Sam was going to create in an NFL locker room.

Also, the Rams very much want to see Sam make the team. Head coach Jeff Fisher can tell Wagoner all he wants that Sam "will be judged solely on his performance on the field," but the team knew when it drafted him that cutting him would open a can of worms.

Frankly, this writer wants Sam to make the team, too, and it has absolutely nothing to do with Sam's personal life.

From all indications, Sam appears to be a very intelligent, thoughtful young man. His teammates at Missouri were so fiercely loyal to him that they kept his "secret" for an entire season.

In many respects, he's what we all wish professional athletes could be.

However, in the NFL, humility and maturity take a back seat to ability, and the jury remains out on whether Sam has enough of the latter.

Every rep in every practice is going to be critical. Ditto for the preseason games.

And even then, even if Sam makes the team, it will likely be on special teams. His NFL ceiling may well be as a situational pass-rusher and reserve.

Make no mistake: It was a great speech, and Sam has conducted himself about as well over the past six months as any human being could reasonably be expected to, especially given the whirlwind of circumstances that swallowed his life.

But before we pop the champagne and give ourselves rotator strains patting Sam on the back for all he's accomplished, keep in mind:

The one goal that Sam himself really wants to accomplish is still no sure bet.

Gary Davenport is an NFL Analyst at Bleacher Report and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association and the Pro Football Writers of America. You can follow Gary on Twitter @IDPManor.


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