Halftime Sports

Analysis: Michael Sam’s Talent, Not His Preference

April 5, 2014


In May of 2013, something revolutionary happened. Jason Collins, a fairly well known NBA center at the time, publicly “came out” and became the first openly homosexual professional athlete. Collins was strongly praised for his bravery and became an instant icon. While he was met with some criticism, the widespread acceptance and admiration that was shown towards Collins was nothing short of refreshing. Almost nine months later, another athlete decided to shake up the sports world. On February 10, 2014, University of Missouri defensive end Michael Sam proudly revealed what his teammates had already known; he was, like Collins, homosexual. Just like Collins, the red shirt senior from Galveston, Texas was met with endless praise and admiration instantly becoming one of the media’s favorite subjects. Sam has since entered the 2014 NFL draft and, if drafted, will become the first openly homosexual player in the NFL. While Sam’s journey to the professional gridiron is inspiring, one has to wonder whether or not he has the skills to succeed at such a high level.

Michael Sam began his college career at the University of Missouri in 2009 as a red shirt freshman. In his first year, Sam recorded 3.5 sacks, 24 tackles, two forced fumbles, and one interception. He would go on to have a very consistent career as both a back up and starter on the defensive line for the Tigers. During his senior year, Sam recorded 31 tackles, 19 of which were for a loss, 11.5 sacks, and 2 forced fumbles. He earned first team All-American, first team All-Sec, and SEC co-defensive player of the year honors. Surprisingly, Sam’s stats compare relatively respectably to the numbers put up by the drafts premier defensive linemen.

Player

Tackles

Int

FF

Solo

Loss

Sacks

Michael Sam (Missouri)

31

19

11.5

0

2

Jadeveon Clowney

(South Carolina)

*2013 stats

40

23.5

13

0

3

Stephon Tuitt

(Notre Dame)

24

9

7.5

1

1

Kony Ealy (Missouri)

30

14

8

1

3

Sam shined in the SEC this past year and his numbers show it. Some argue that his exceptional numbers came as a result of the fantastic performance by his teammates on the defensive line. However, combine performance and athletic build hold much more weight than college statistics when scouting a future NFL defensive lineman. Unfortunately Sam didn’t have the greatest combine. He recorded a rather average 4.9-second forty, 25-inch vertical, and 17 rep bench press. While Sam shows great strength, he was a power lifter in college, he really doesn’t show the same burst and acceleration off the ball that players like Clowney and Ealy have demonstrated many times both on and off the field. Additionally, Sam failed to really show an established set of pass rush moves and consistent tackling ability. These aforementioned attributes are so important because, as a player moves from college to the pros, the game gets much faster. Fast hands and feet are needed, now more than ever, to get past faster and stronger NFL offensive linemen. In college, Sam found success against opposing lineman due to his endurance, aggressiveness, and anticipation. These attributes will definitely help Sam in the NFL, but his lack of exceptional speed and strong hands will prevent him from making an immediate impact next fall.

Unfortunately, ever since Sam announced that he was homosexual last February, his draft stock has been falling. Only 6’2’’, 261 pounds, Sam really doesn’t have the build of a prototypical NFL defensive end. For comparison, Jared Allen is 6’6’’, 270 pounds and Julius Peppers is 6’7’’, 287 pounds. Sam’s height is well below average and will likely force him to convert to the linebacker position early on in his professional career in order to stay relevant. NFL franchises sometimes see this as a gamble that rarely pays off. Take Larry English for example. In 2009, the 6’2’’, 255-pound defensive end out of Northern Illinois was the Chargers’ first round pick. Because of his size, English was converted to an outside linebacker and has still yet to make any significant impact. In fact, it’s surprising that the Chargers haven’t cut him yet. It’s likely that Sam will face a very similar challenge. Another reason for his diminishing draft stock is the attention he has been getting since “coming out”. It’s really no surprise that NFL teams try to avoid distractions. Although ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith may disagree, this is the only reason that Tim Tebow is no longer on an NFL roster. Teams simply don’t want to deal with the fanfare that comes with a single player, especially if that player isn’t one of their “franchise stars”.

Besides the underwhelming Larry English, Michael Sam’s style of play is reminiscent of another San Diego Charger. In the 2012, NFL draft, Melvin Ingram, a defensive end out of South Carolina, was selected in the first round by San Diego. Ingram was also short for his position and really didn’t have the speed of a starting NFL defensive end. Because of this, the Chargers also converted him to outside linebacker. It wasn’t until last year that Ingram started making an impact. This was mainly due to the fact that the Chargers switched to a 3-4 defense complete with diverse zone blitz packages. Sam will also likely flourish in a defense like this due to its ability to mask weaknesses such as pass rush ability and highlight strengths such as aggressiveness and athleticism. More than likely, Sam will be most effective as a situational player in zone blitz packages on third and longs. He will be able to get into the backfield thanks to complex blitz packages and won’t have to worry about pass coverage.

Although this year’s draft is surprisingly thin in defensive lineman, Michael Sam still doesn’t qualify as a first or even second round pick. Sam will likely be drafted around the late fourth to fifth rounds. Because of this, he could really be drafted to any team looking for a decent defensive player late in the draft. As previously mentioned, the best fit for Sam is a team that runs a 3-4 defense. Some of these teams include the Pittsburg Steelers, Baltimore Ravens, and Philadelphia Eagles. Personally, I see Sam going to the Eagles. Coach Chip Kelly has often voiced his support for Sam and was one of the more notable faces in attendance at his recent pro day. The Eagles are an organization that has handled the popularity of polarizing players well in the past (i.e. the return of Michael Vick) and will undoubtedly be able to handle the media attention that will come with drafting Sam.

Many people wonder whether or not the NFL is ready for its first “openly” homosexual player. Believe it or not, the majority of current NFL players have admitted to having played with homosexual teammates in the past. With this said, the answer to the question is, unfortunately, “no”. The media has successfully transformed Michael Sam from “the talented defensive end from Missouri” into “the first openly homosexual NFL player”. This media attention has, as previously mentioned, turned many NFL owners off from the prospect of drafting Michael Sam. Hopefully, one day the sports world, specifically sports media, will be able to overlook personal characteristics such as sexual orientation and, instead, focus on the athletic talent that players such as Michael Sam possess. Hopefully, thanks to players like Michael Sam and Jason Collins, that day comes soon.

Photo: Marcus Qwertyus/Wikipedia



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