Former Missouri defensive lineman Michael Sam this week became the first openly gay player to enter the NFL draft. In a historical context, his career will be significant. The media attention he'll receive the next year will be intense but at a certain point, the focus will shift from Sam the gay athlete to Sam the football player.
Which is where we come in, evaluating the former Tigers defensive end on game film to see if he can fill the Chicago Bears' defensive needs. Sam led the SEC in both sacks (10.5) and tackles for loss (18.0) in 2013, and ranked in the Top 10 nationally in both categories. For his efforts, the AP named him SEC Defensive Player of the Year.
Michael Sam, Missouri (Senior) (6-2, 260)2013 SEC Defensive Player of the Year; led SEC in sacks and tackles for loss in 2013
Projected: 3rd-4th Round
Despite being relatively small for a defensive end, Sam is a solid defender against the run. He comes off the ball hard and low and stays skinny when shooting gaps. He uses good leverage and balance, and extends his arms well to fight off blocks, which partially makes up for his lack of size. Missouri used 4-3 and 3-4 sets, lining up Sam all over the defensive line, even at nose tackle. He appears to have very good upper-body strength and it wouldn't be a surprise if he does very well in the bench press at the 2014 NFL Scouting Combine.
Sam's specialty is his ability to get after the passer. Out of both a three- and four-point stance, he is up and moving as if shot out of a cannon. His first-step ability and speed around the corner – only Auburn's Dee Ford was quicker in pass-rush drills at the Senior Bowl – was one of the main reason for his success last season. Sam is also effective on inside moves, using his speed rush to set up the cross over.
Sam is strong but he's still not big compared to most NFL defensive ends. He does well fighting off blocks but bigger offensive linemen can eat him up. He just doesn't have the size to absorb well-balanced blocks from 320-pound offensive tackles.
Sam doesn't have sideline-to-sideline speed and wasn't asked to cover much in college. In zone sets, he lacks awareness and instincts, and he'll struggle mightily in man coverage at the next level against some of the league's better tight ends.
He's one of the quickest edge rushers in this class but Sam's pass-rush arsenal is somewhat limited.
Sam put together some very impressive film and it's tough to deny his natural athletic ability. At the Senior Bowl, he was one of the most dominant edge rushers in 1-on-1 pass-rush drills. He showed outstanding burst off the ball and quickness to beat blockers both inside and outside.
Yet Sam is definitely a "tweener", a defensive end in a linebacker's body. If he were two inches taller and 15-20 pounds heavier, he'd be a first-round pick. At his current size, which is almost identical to Shea McClellin, Sam will struggle to set the edge against NFL rushing attacks. He can shoot gaps and disrupt plays in the backfield but more often than not, mauling NFL linemen are going to swallow him up.
Sam is a much stronger version of McClellin but he could end up having the same issues as Chicago's former first rounder. In addition, he wasn't asked to drop back much in college and doesn't have experience in coverage, so his learning curve as a 3-4 outside linebacker could be steep.
He could have a hard time finding a place in both 3-4 and 4-3 defenses, which is why Sam will likely fall to the third or fourth round. Yet despite his limited frame and skill set, he has a place in the NFL, especially working under a creative defensive coordinator. The Bears have professed a desire to mix up the defense going forward, possibly incorporating 3-4 principles into the club's 4-3 system, so Sam could be the type of hybrid player to aid that transition.
The problem is the presence of McClellin, whom many expect to fill that fourth linebacker role next season. With one "rover" already on the roster, it wouldn't make a lot of sense to use a mid-round pick on Sam, especially after spending a second- and fourth-round pick on linebackers in last year's draft.
When you throw in the unbelievable media storm that will accompany Sam wherever he goes, the Bears would probably be better off taking a pass.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is entering his fourth season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Bear Report Web site or magazine, click here.