Last Sunday, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel published an article by Bob McGinn about Michael Sam, the 2014 NFL draft prospect who, if he is selected, makes it through training camp, and onto an active game day roster, would be the first openly gay man to compete in the NFL. In the piece, McGinn cites about two dozen anonymous sources, general managers and scout personnel, whom he spoke to about "capability as a player." The consensus? "He's regarded almost as a non-entity."
"Most of his production was hustle stuff," says one nameless "NFC personnel man." "There's production, but he's short, he's not a really good athlete and he doesn't play good against the run."
McGinn's piece was picked up and cited unquestioningly by a number of other outlets who added their voices to his. An article on NFL.com, citing McGinn's report, posited that it's now "a very real possibility we don't hear his name called at all." Over at the New York Post, the headline read "Michael Sam Falling Off Draft Boards," with the article itself going so far as to suggest that if he is drafted, it will be in spite of his poor athletic potential: "There is also the possibility his bid to become the first openly gay player in NFL history could work in his favor, if a team looking for good PR wanted to make a splash."
When Sam came out in February, the primary concern about the projected third-round NFL Draft pick, as voiced by 12 different anonymous NFL general managers, was that his sexuality would be a "distraction." "If Sam is among that group of players, the potential distraction of his presence—both in the media and the locker room— could prevent him from being selected," said Sports Illustrated. This is, of course, ridiculous. As the Daily Beast’s Dave Cullen put it, “It's the closet that causes the rumors, and the lying and deceiving, and the distrust that drives the wedges.” That is to say, if there was ever a “distraction” at all, it was the coming-out itself. With that over and done with, any further issues will belong purely to other players and front offices.
So with that notion now thoroughly debunked, pundits wishing to play down Michael Sam's significance seem to have moved on to attacking his skills as a football player as a means of justifying his falling draft stock. If Michael Sam isn't drafted, the logic goes, it's because he's a poor athlete, not because he's gay.
It's not uncommon for players to lose draft stock over non-football issues. Every year, terms like "character concerns," "low motor," and "locker room diva" get flung around during the draft process, and they have the power to drive players, deserving or not, into the later rounds and even right off the board. Before his junior season, for example, Arizona State linebacker Vontaze Burfict was projected as a top-10 pick in the 2012 NFL draft. Then the red flags started flying. There were rumors that he beat up a teammate, that he failed a marijuana test at the combine, that he was a dirty player on the field. Burfict ended up going undrafted before he was picked up by the Bengals, where he has been every bit as good as advertised before his fall.
But Michael Sam doesn't have these issues. He has no arrest record. He has a high motor. He has the love of his teammates, who have called him a “great guy” and a “great leader.” He is, by all accounts, the kind of high-character prospect coaches gush over at press conferences. So in the absence of a negative, his detractors have taken to attacking his football acumen instead.
The trouble is that these criticisms don't hold up to actual analysis. In one of the many incorrect assessments of Sam's game, one NFC scout in McGinn's piece said, "He has trouble in space and struggles changing directions." As it turns out, this may be what Sam does best. Retired NFL lineman Stephen White, in his extensive breakdown on SB Nation, called Sam "the best corner rusher I have broken down thus far." Better even than his teammate and projected first-round pick Kony Ealy, who, it should be noted, Sam outproduced while playing in the same system against the same competition. Says White:
Beating a guy around the corner in college football is a dying art, so when you see a guy who can do it consistently, it jumps right out and grabs you. These days, unless the pass rusher is one of those freaks who runs a 4.6 40 or better, you hardly even see guys trying to get around the corner. Even those freakish guys, like Clowney, don't always have the technique to turn the corner when they have a one-on-one opportunity to go along with their athletic ability. While they're fast, they aren't fast enough to get around the offensive tackle using only speed on a consistent basis.
Sam is no speed demon, obviously, as he only ran a 4.91 at the NFL Combine. However, what Sam does have is an excellent get-off on the ball and an uncanny ability to get his hips turned right away. When he executes his rip move he can stay on course and get to the quarterback. Some people don't understand that pass rushing is a 5- to 7-yard dance more so than a sprint. If you are a good dancer and can get off the ball, that can go a long way to making up for a slow 40 time.
What all of that means is that there should be a place for Michael Sam in the NFL. In fact, I can think of a team that'd be perfect for him: the New York Jets.
Head coach Rex Ryan is a widely acknowledged defensive mastermind who, for years, has used exotic blitz schemes and a dominant defensive line to generate a pass rush and wring multi-sack seasons from similarly undersized former first-round busts like Aaron Maybin. Last year the monstrous trio of Damon Harrison, Muhammed Wilkerson, and former Mizzou Tiger Sheldon Richardson consistently ate up enough blockers to clear the way for Calvin Pace, who will turn 34 in October, to have a career 10-sack season. Can the 24-year-old, technically sound (if not advanced) SEC co-defensive player of the year approach or match the production of a 33-year-old player on the downslope of his career at a position of dire need? It would only cost one of the Jets' 12 picks (three in the fourth round, where Sam should go) to find out, and second-year general manager John Idzik is descended from the Seattle Seahawks tradition of finding tremendous value in the later rounds (Russell Wilson and Richard Sherman come to mind).
It's true that Sam doesn't possess prototypical size for either defensive end or outside linebacker, the position he may be asked to play at the next level. But even as a purely situational pass rusher, he will have value in a pass-first league. Teams have bid higher on similarly miscast players like Dion Jordan, who the Dolphins traded up for last year in the hopes that he would become a pass-rushing beast (note: he did not), and Bruce Irvin, another "in-betweener" who the Seahawks have had success with after drafting him in the first round in 2012.
Sam's greatest weakness, according to White, may be his overall strength (though he's already improved on his bench press numbers from the NFL combine to his Mizzou pro day), but the NFL is full of athletic super freaks who never lived up to their potential. To say that Michael Sam doesn't deserve a chance, that he isn't even worth the minimal risk of a late-round pick because he's a few tenths of a second slower than his more highly touted peers, is patently wrong. There is a place for Michael Sam in the NFL, and there is no football-related reason for him to go undrafted beyond the league's simple fear of the unknown.