If there were widespread doubts that Michael Sam would get drafted following his rocky performance at the NFL Scouting Combine last month, there are a lot fewer now after the former Missouri defensive end delivered a much-improved workout at Mizzou’s annual Pro Day on Thursday.
"Scouts said he’s going to be drafted, that he’s too good of a football player not to be drafted," said Russ Lande of GM Jr Scouting, a former scout with the St. Louis Rams and Cleveland Browns. "Is he a premier prospect? No. But I’d be very surprised if he wasn’t picked."
Whether Sam would be selected in May’s NFL Draft was in question after the combine, when the consensus All-American and SEC Defensive Player of the Year wowed a media gathering with a strong interview session shortly after he revealed he is gay. So if teams were concerned about an openly gay player — Sam would be the first in NFL history — affecting locker room chemistry and causing media distractions, well, Sam sure appeared ready to deal with it.
But the only way he would get the chance would be if he had the football skills to earn a roster spot, and based on his combine performance, that was no certainty. He struggled in the testing portion of the combine, recording a 4.91-second 40-yard dash, 17 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press and a 25.5-inch vertical leap — some of the worst numbers among defensive ends in Indianapolis.
The 6-foot-2, 263-pounder, who added two pounds since the combine, ran the 40 in 4.69 seconds (unofficially), getting him into an acceptable range for defensive ends. He also recorded 19 reps on the bench press and a 30-inch vertical leap. All improvements.
"I think he showed what he sort of is," Lande said. "He ran better in the 40, significantly better when you consider he stumbled running the one 40 that he did and he still ran much better than he did at the combine. In the drills I think you see what he is, which is he’s a quick-footed guy. You can tell he’s been practicing and working hard. You can tell he’s got the work ethic. His drills, even though they weren’t great in terms of (being) athletic, they were great in terms of he knew what he was doing."
Sam tweaked his right hamstring during the 40-yard dash and chose not to run it a second time, but he returned to do the vertical leap and then perform defensive end and linebacker positional drills.
"He showed today he’s a guy that’s a little bit stiff, a little bit robotic, but he’s a quick-footed guy and the reality is he’s just a really good football player," Lande said. "Someone is going to get a good football player who is going to be a good solid backup — maybe he develops into a starter — but that’s what they are going to get when they take him on the third day of the draft."
Rounds 4 through 7 are held on Day 3 of the draft.
So do you want a playmaker or do you want a guy that looks good in drills? Pick.
L'Damian Washington, Sam's teammate at Mizzou
"It could go anywhere from fourth to seventh round, but I feel very confident that he’s going to be drafted," Lande said. "The reality is when you pull up the film he’s a really good football player. His production warrants being a third- to fifth-round draft pick, so I think he’s going to go in that range."
Sam did not speak with the media Thursday, but his former teammates had plenty to say about him.
They all say Sam has handled the spotlight well since his announcement in early February, and that his production on the field speaks volumes about him as an NFL prospect, especially what he did against the best competition in college football playing in the SEC.
"He’s not a guy that’s going to wow in his drills, but I mean, you put him in a game on third-and-6 and tell him to make a play, he’s going to grit his teeth and make a play," wide receiver L’Damian Washington said. "So do you want a playmaker or do you want a guy that looks good in drills? Pick."
Former Mizzou defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson, the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year last season with the New York Jets, attended the Pro Day to check in on his former teammates.
"That film doesn’t lie," Richardson said.
OTHER TIGER WORKOUTS
Sam wasn’t the only Mizzou product who helped himself Thursday.
Michael Sam dances as he jokes with teammates during his Pro Day workout.
Defensive end Kony Ealy, projected as a possible first-round pick, improved on his combine performance. He ran unofficial 40 times ranging from 4.56 to 4.63 and recorded a 32-inch vertical jump and a broad jump of 10 feet, 1 inch.
Washington and cornerback E.J. Gaines were the fastest players in the 40, each recording unofficial times in the high-4.3s to mid-4.4s.
Washington was timed at 4.46 in the 40 at the combine.
"I think I exceeded expectations," he said. "You want to wow some folks at Pro Day and I think I was nothing short of that. I’m finally about 90 percent with the foot (which he injured during the 2013 season). Everything felt better. I’m happy about it. It wasn’t perfect, because there’s no such thing, but it was close."
Tight end Eric Waters had a 39.5-inch vertical leap and a personal-best broad jump of 10-2.
Running back Henry Josey, who like Ealy decided to leave Mizzou with one year of eligibility remaining, chose not to run the 40 after clocking a 4.43 in Indianapolis.
"I ran fast already," Josey said. "What do you want me to do, get a rocket ship and try to run it down there? I’m fine with what I did."
One of the most surprising performances came from Max Copeland, a two-year starter at left guard for Mizzou. Copeland showed up Thursday weighing 266 pounds — down from his playing weight of 315 last season — and worked out as a fullback. That’s not a typo.
"When I knew it was right was when everyone says, ‘That’s stupid.’ That’s when I knew it was a good decision. That’s kind of how I base what’s right to do, over how stupid it seems to other people."
Copeland, who was a tight end in high school before walking on at Mizzou, caught passes from James Franklin after blocking for him just a few months ago. Told Thursday that fullback is a dying position in the NFL, the always-quotable Copeland said, "It’s time to give it a pulse."
THE SCOUT’S VIEW
Lande saw some things he liked and some he didn’t like at the workout.
"The receiver (Marcus) Lucas had a good day," Lande said. "I thought he was quicker than I expected. He ran very good routes, caught the ball extremely well. The tight end, (Eric) Waters, he looked much better than I expected, much quicker. He caught the ball very well.
"I was very disappointed in the quarterback (James Franklin). I thought he was really bad. I thought for a guy throwing to his receivers, his accuracy was way off. The running back had a good day, too, the little Josey kid. He’s a quick little football player. He can change directions. He’s got very good hands. There’s a spot for a player like him in the NFL."
Lande predicted that Josey would be a third-day draft pick.
"Guys that can catch the ball have a value, and I think that’s where his strength is," Lande said. "He can catch the ball and he’s good out in space. Is he going to be a starting tailback? No. But nowadays you don’t have to be a starting tailback to earn money.
"You could be Danny Woodhead and have a very good career. I don’t know if he’s Woodhead, but I think he’s athletic, he can change directions, he’s got very good hands. He’s a guy that’s going to get picked, I think, on the third day of the draft. Somebody will take him hoping he can be sort of their change-of-pace guy."
You can follow Nate Latsch on Twitter (@natelatsch) or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.