Defensive end Michael Sam put on quite the performance his senior year at Missouri. He finished this past college football season with a SEC-best 11.5 sacks and 19 tackles for loss. His notoriously high-running motor and quickness made him a nightmare for opposing offensive lines and, as a result, he was named the SEC’s Defensive Player of the Year. To be named the best defensive player in the best conference in football is clearly something special and highly admirable. What may be even more admirable, however, is Sam’s action off the football field earlier this month. Just months before the 2014 NFL Draft kicks off in New York City, Sam told ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” and “The New York Times”that he is gay. If and when he is drafted, the 24-year-old Texan will become the first openly gay man to ever grace the roster of any of America’s three major sports.
But how will NFL teams respond to Sam’s announcement? For many owners and coaches, any controversy or publicity surrounding a prospect is seen as a recipe for distraction, which in turn is a recipe for failure when it comes time to take the field. If they care about their football teams enough to simply look at the talent that Sam offers, owners and coaches ought not to have any problem with picking him. It just may not happen quite as early as many Sam-supporters wish.
Of the past nine SEC Defensive Player of the Year winners, eight were drafted in the first round; the lone second rounder, Alabama product DeMeco Ryans, went 33rd overall to the Houston Texans in 2006. But as enlightened and progressive as it would be for the NFL to see Sam go in the first or even the second round, according to most football experts, that seems unlikely. Holding his sexuality as a non-factor, Sam is widely, and negatively, viewed as being what is called a tweener: a defensive player who is too small to be an effective NFL defensive end, but too slow or inexperienced at linebacker to take up that position. At just 6’1″, 255 lbs., Sam is noticeably smaller than most star-caliber NFL defensive ends. Minnesota’s Jared Allen, for example, is 6’6″, 270 lbs.; Houston’s J.J. Watt comes in at 6’5″ 289 lbs.; Chicago’s Julius Peppers is a mammoth of a man at 6’7″, 287 lbs. Additionally, when he was forced into a linebacker role in a couple games at Missouri, Sam performed poorly.
There is no denying that Sam is a great player, but his position as well as the notable jump in average player size from college to the NFL mean that he is not likely to join the likes of former SEC defensive greats such as Jarvis Jones (17th overall in 2012) and Morris Claiborne (sixth overall in 2011) as a first round draft pick. If teams are smart, however, there is no reason why they shouldn’t draft the SEC’s top defensive end in a later round. The consensus in various circles within the NFL seems to be this: the issue is not Sam’s sexuality, but his size and the media circus that will surround him from Day One of training camp. As unfair as that may be, for many franchises it’s enough to be wary of.
I expect a stable, veteran team who is not afraid of a few “distractions” like the Patriots, Seahawks or Packers to pick up Sam in the third or fourth round. He will be drafted come May. It’s just a matter of when.