I focus on football skill in evaluations. That is all. I am not privy to an ounce of the information on prospects’ injuries or (the blanket term) “character” as NFL teams are. We might hear a few pieces of info on specific prospects throughout the process, but I find it difficult to factor that into my opinion since I am not fortunate enough to research other players in the same way.
In Missouri Tiger Michael Sam’s case, Peter King of The MMQB polled multiple NFL personnel members on how the edge-rusher’s sexual orientation might impact his career, as did Pete Thamel and Thayer Evans of Sports Illustrated. The two pieces can speak for themselves.
Let us move on to Michael Sam’s on-field evaluation, and why I believed he was a third day selection 24 hours ago and why that fourth- to seventh-round projection will stick as the process moves forward.
Where He Wins and Loses
From his left defensive end spot, typically as a 5 or 7 technique, Sam consistently utilizes an edge rip in an attempt to work around his opposition. To put it into simple terms, Sam is a bit of a one trick pony, but that single tactic resulted in 11.5 sacks and an SEC defensive player of the year award.
This is not the first time this statement has been said, but from an evaluation perspective college football awards mean very little. Many times they are based on production, but how that production was achieved and if it can be projected to the next level is what matters.
Sam has a natural leverage advantage thanks to his sub 6 foot 2 inch and used it to his advantage in the first half of the season. Most players who can consistently win around the edge without hand use do so thanks to great bend and or great burst. And those traits are hard to come by. Sam does not have the type of flexibility that translates well.
The Missouri edge-rusher does not find contact through his hands. In fact, Sam plays like he does not have arms far too often. He has good arm length, 33 and ¼ inches, but has not learned how to use it. Instead of attacking an offensive lineman’s chest when his initial line was stopped, Sam continued to work around the pocket. In order to make an impact as a pass rusher, prospects must engage in an attempt to gain a leverage or balance advantage, or else they are taking themselves out of the play. There were other opportunities for Sam to plant his outside foot in the dirt and take an inside lane, but he did not take advantage of the open space.
Some might be asking how Sam was able to produce at a high level with these faults. The answer: his get-off from the line of scrimmage and a motor to finish plays others started. Sam knows how to make the most of that extra step off the line, but in terms of NFL-caliber explosion or burst, I do not think it is there.
Even as a run defender, Sam tends to allow blockers into his chest rather than delivering a jolting punch and extension and obtain backfield vision. If he can start using his hands and length with purpose, Sam has a shot as an edge-rusher in the NFL. But his game has to change.
Where He Fits
As previously written, too much is made about 4-3 and 3-4 designations. What is important is alignment and responsibility. In Sam’s case, he currently needs to align at the end of an offensive line and asked to purely be an upfield pass rusher. I do not think he has the movement skills to consistently drop into coverage.
Sam should be a third day selection. I know that might seem like a large gap, but differences in grades on the final day, especially rounds five through seven, tend to be fractional. The most important part of the process, which Sigmund Bloom pointed out, is not where Sam gets drafted. It is what happens during training camp once he is on an even playing field with teammates.