By Russ Lande
I will never claim to be a writer who discusses social issues and their impact on people, so do not expect to hear about how Michael Sam is going to change the world of professional football or the world in general in this article. Regardless of Sam's potential cultural impact off the football field, he must prove himself on the playing field in order to have a long NFL career and affect change. Before I jump into my analysis of how Sam will fit into the Rams' defense, I want to make the point that the reason he was a late-round pick was due to his athletic limitations. All NFL teams construct their draft boards differently and have drastically different player rankings and the bulk of the players they select in the later rounds of the draft have third- or fourth-round grades on their team's respective draft boards.
There is little doubt that Robert Quinn and Chris Long will be the Rams' starting defensive ends in 2014, and probably for much longer, so the question is whether Sam can win a roster spot as a backup. Although the Rams have veteran defensive ends Williams Hayes and Eugene Sims on their roster, the reality in today's NFL is that teams are always looking for younger, cheaper players to replace veterans who are not starters. Because both Hayes and Sims are vested veterans each will cost significantly more than Sam, so Sam likely needs to battle to a draw with one of these players in order to win a roster spot.
The Rams' defensive scheme is built around aggressiveness and pressuring the quarterback, which fits perfectly with Sam's skill set. St. Louis allows defensive ends to use their initial quickness to attack the corner, forcing the offensive tackle to try and slide out quick enough to protect it. By doing this you give your pass rushers a three-way option: Try and beat the blocker around the corner, back underneath or through him with a power rush, which is often effective as the pass blocker is so focused on sliding out quickly that they can be jolted and drive backwards.
In four of the six games that I evaluated Sam and charted every snap he played, he displayed excellent initial quickness (he was almost always the first defensive linemen moving in those four games) and combined with his speed he was able to beat the offensive tackle to the turn point. Using his hands to chop at the pass blockers' hands and to rip up and through the offensive tackle, Sam was effective turning the corner and pressuring the quarterback when he kept his shoulder down and maintained good leverage and strength during the turn. However, he was not consistent doing this, and offensive tackles who stayed in their shuffle and used their hands well were able to ride him around the pocket, so he will need to work on maintaining dip/leverage while attempting to turn the corner.
Although Sam lacks great bulk, he proved on film that he can transfer from speed to power to jolt and drive the offensive tackle backwards into the quarterback's lap. When he came out of his initial rush to try to power rush, he did a good job of maintaining pad level and using his hands aggressively to jolt the blockers before they could get their hands on him. He will need to improve his ability to change directions quickly and efficiently -- his stiffness currently hinders this -- if he is going to take advantage of pass blockers' slide to try and beat them back underneath.
Not only must he improve his change of direction ability, but he must develop more pass rush moves, as he is primarily an edge rusher who attacks the corner with speed and is effective as a bull/power rusher. Although it is not likely, Sam's experience and production rushing the passer when he lined up inside as a defensive tackle in passing situations could lead to him getting some snaps inside when the Rams align with different defensive fronts.
I have no doubt that Sam's ability to contribute rushing the passer will be the biggest determining factor in his long-term success in the NFL, but his smart and responsible play against the run and production on special teams will be vital as he competes for a roster spot.
At Missouri, Sam did an excellent job of taking on run blocks strong at the point of attack to set the edge and keep the play contained on running plays to his side of the field, but he must improve his quickness shedding those blocks to make more plays. His quickness off the ball made it easy for him to get inside attempted "reach blocks" to make tackles on inside runs and running plays away, and he should continue to be successful in those situations in the NFL. Sam started nine games as a junior; before that, he earned his keep as a situational pass rusher and on special teams, where he blocked a punt during his freshmen season. His experience on special teams should help him as he battles for a roster spot -- many young players entering the NFL who were bigger stars in college than Sam did not play much on teams and often struggle to produce when called upon, which hinders their ability to win a roster spot battle. Many outside of the NFL do not realize that the last player to make the team at defensive end, linebacker, safety and cornerback are rarely the best at their defensive position compared to all those cut, but they often make the team because they outperform them on special teams, which could help Sam.
When training camp hits for the Rams this year they will have more media attention than they likely ever have had before due to Sam's presence, but he will need to perform well to make their 53-man roster and keep the interest of the public. I believe that his initial quickness will allow him to contribute as a situational pass rusher and that, combined with his competitiveness, toughness and special teams play, will help him to make their roster. I do not foresee Sam ever becoming a starter for the Rams, but I believe he has many of the traits to become a quality third defensive end who contributes as a situational pass rusher and helps to keep Quinn and Long fresh.
* * *
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 10 Network. He is a former scout for the Cleveland Browns and former scouting administrator for the St. Louis Rams. You can follow him@RUSSLANDE.