Michael Sam terrorized college quarterbacks. Scouts are trying to figure out if he can do it in the NFL.
Denny Medley/Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports
ST. LOUIS — Michael Sam’s college football resume stacks up against anybody else’s. The Missouri defensive end became just the second unanimous All-America selection in school history as a fifth-year senior last season, when he was also selected as the Associated Press SEC Defensive Player of the Year after leading the league in sacks (11 1/2) and tackles for loss (19).
That announcement certainly will affect his NFL Draft status as teams try to gauge the impact of an openly gay player in the locker room (a new phenomenon for the NFL) and the media circus he is sure to attract.
But in terms of his pure football potential, that stellar college resume doesn’t guarantee NFL success, or even a starting job. But there should be a place for him in the league, according to draft gurus Russ Lande of GM Jr Scouting and Dan Shonka of Ourlads’ NFL Scouting Services, both former NFL scouts.
"I gave him a late third-, top of the fourth-round grade off film," Lande says. "I think he’ll probably go in that fourth- or fifth-round area."
Ourlads’ has Sam ranked as the 16th-best outside linebacker prospect for the upcoming draft. Shonka says he also considers Sam to be a fourth- or fifth-round pick this year.
"A lot of that has to do with 100 juniors coming out, including his teammate (Kony Ealy), who plays the opposite end," Shonka says. "It kind of knocks everybody down. If you’re, for instance, a good, solid third-round player and you’ve got 100 guys coming out, receivers, running backs, all kind of guys who are going to start going in that second, third-round area, it knocks everybody else down. We kind of see him in that fourth-, fifth-round area as a situational pass rusher and in a 3-4 scheme."
Lande says Sam is highly competitive, plays with great energy and passion, is strong against the run, uses his hands well to stay free of blocks and that he can tell, just from watching film, that the defensive end prospect is a vocal leader on the field.
"He’s a really good college football player," Lande says. "Where he fits in the NFL? I think it’s up for debate. I think he’s going to have to prove that he has the explosiveness and pass-rush skills to be a starter. If he doesn’t prove that, he’ll probably be a rotational type of guy. He’s going to have to, at least initially, prove himself on special teams. And if he doesn’t develop into a starter, he’s going to make his career as sort of a designated pass rusher and special teams guy."
Shonka says Sam is a fringe guy as a defensive end in a 4-3 scheme because of his height. Sam measured 6-foot-1 1/2 at the Senior Bowl last month, where he worked out as an outside linebacker.
"I think he can play a rush outside linebacker in a 3-4 as long as he’s going to be rushing the passer because he really struggled in the Senior Bowl," Shonka says. "They tried to play him (standing) up some there and he just hadn’t done it. It doesn’t mean he can’t do it. He was lost in cuts and things like that on man-to-man coverage and in zone. It’s just something that he hasn’t done, because he rushed the passer all the time at Missouri.
"He might end up being a situation pass rusher. In the age of NFL specialization, some teams, they can’t get enough pass rushers. That might be his role to play on a team. He’s just a little bit bigger than Elvis Dumervil, and Dumervil ended up going in the fourth round and he’s been very productive in the league since. But he’s got to be in the right scheme. (Dumervil is) a lot better in a 3-4 scheme than a four-man front, as Denver found out. So that’s why I think that Sam could probably be a little bit better in a 3-4 scheme and then coming straight ahead and not dropping (into coverage). If they want him to drop, it’s going to take a while to learn how to drop into coverage, understand coverages and things like that."
Lande says there will always be a home in the NFL for anybody who can get to the quarterback.
The former St. Louis Rams scout cited the Super Bowl champion Seahawks as being successful because they have workmanlike players such as defensive end Cliff Avril who fill roles and produces.
"If you can get to the quarterback and put pressure on him, teams will find a way to use you because it’s just impossible to find guys like that," Lande says. "So even if Sam never becomes a front-line starter, if he contributes playing 25-35 snaps a game on defense and is a really good special teams guy, he could have a long career.
"And I think it’s 50-50 whether he does become a starter. If you’re a starter, you don’t have to worry about all that. But if he doesn’t, he still has a lot of tools to become a quality backup."
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