By Russ Lande
As Michael Sam's announcement that he's gay makes headlines across all types of media, much of the focus has been on where he will be drafted, how his announcement will affect his draft stock and whether teams are going to be concerned about drafting him. Here, let's focus on what type of player Sam is and what skill set he brings to the table to help him succeed in the NFL out of Missouri.
Although Sam struggled throughout the week of practice at the Senior Bowl, he grabbed my attention during the actual game, where his initial quickness and edge pass-rush ability were the best they'd been all week and left me excited to evaluate his film once I returned from Mobile, Ala. The most frustrating aspect to get a feel for was Sam's initial quickness; he was often the last defensive lineman moving against Indiana and Oklahoma State, but against South Carolina, Georgia, Florida and Vanderbilt he was consistently the first pass rusher moving at the snap. When he gets off the ball quickly, he has the speed to threaten the corner and can rip through the offensive tackle's outside shoulder to turn the corner and pressure the quarterback. His stiffness, however, is readily apparent as he struggles to dip his shoulder and get low while trying to turn the corner, and he can be ridden around the pocket by pass blockers who use good technique. This will likely be an even bigger issue against the better offensive tackles he will face in the NFL.
Having been constantly chipped, Sam is used to having to work through more than one blocker, and when offenses try to pass block him with only a tight end or running back on the backside, he destroys them and pressures the passer. On the flip side, Sam lacks any real variety of pass rush moves besides his edge rush and his power drive through the offensive tackle's inside shoulder. He will need to develop better pass-rush moves to be effective against NFL offensive tackles. Being a straight-line athlete with limited flexibility and agility hinders his ability to change directions fast and explode back underneath the pass blocker.
While Sam is constantly referred to as just a pass rusher, that doesn't tell the whole story. Even though Sam struggles to sink his hips to get great leverage, he is consistently able to get his hands on run blockers quickly, can lock-out his arms and has the strength to anchor and hold his ground again the run. While he does not consistently shed fast enough to make a lot of tackles on running plays to his side of the field, he does a good job of maintaining outside responsibility and forcing the play back inside. In addition, his ability to use his quickness, hands and strength to drive through attempted reach blocks enables him to get into the backfield to either make tackles behind the line on inside runs or get down the line fast to make tackles in pursuit on running plays away. Not only does Sam contribute when lining up as a defensive end, but also when he slides down inside and lines up as a defensive tackle his quickness enables him to get gap penetration and consistently disrupt running plays behind the line of scrimmage and to pressure the quarterback in passing situations.
For a player who measured 6-foot-1 5/8, 260 pounds with 33¼ inch arms, Sam is not tiny, and if he proves that he can rush the passer at the NFL level, then he is more than big enough to handle playing with a hand in the ground as a 4-3 defensive end. For teams that play a 3-4 defense, Sam fits in well as an outside linebacker because of his ability to rush the passer from a wider alignment and set the edge in run defense. There's no doubt that he's stiff and struggles moving and adjusting out in space, which will hinder him in coverage, but this is a problem for many outside linebackers in 3-4 defenses.
Most interesting is that after studying six games, he charts out very favorably compared to the elite defensive prospects in the 2014 NFL draft. He makes and impacts a higher percentage of plays against the run and rushing the passer than Jadeveon Clowney and Anthony Barr, but fewer than Kyle Van Noy and Khalil Mack. In the end, Sam was an outstanding college football player who blossomed in 2013 and will likely be a middle-round pick in the draft. Although Larry English was a better player coming out of college than Sam, English's play for the Chargers, when healthy, reminds me a lot of Sam's style of play at Missouri. I believe that Sam will end up being a third- or fourth-round draft pick who contributes as a designated pass rusher as a rookie, and if he can improve in the areas mentioned above, he should become a solid starter in the NFL.
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Russ Lande writes about college scouting and the NFL draft for Sports on Earth. He is GM jr. scouting and college scouting director for the CFL's Montreal Alouettes and the Big Ten Network. He is a former scout for the Cleveland Browns and former scouting administrator for the St. Louis Rams. You can follow him @RUSSLANDE.