Michael Sam is starting to look and sound like a man who might not be drafted
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — It wouldn’t be an NFL Draft if it didn’t resemble "Curb Your Enthusiasm" at some point, if we didn’t have at least three or four cringe-worthy moments, a few borderline train wrecks captured by the magic of live television.
And there’s nothing more cringe-worthy than cutting to the poor guy in the thousand-dollar suit in the Green Room, waiting for his name to be called. And waiting. And waiting. And waiting. You could hardly blame Aaron Rodgers for wanting to spit on the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center every time he’s walked past the place.
Although, actually, there is something even more awkward, even more uncomfortable: The live shots of the poor guy in his living room, surrounded by family, friends, plates of half-eaten pizza and drinks, staring collectively at the television, waiting for the phone to ring.
And waiting. And waiting. And waiting.
It’s great theater, if you’re the type who’s into psychological torture.
At any rate, word from Michael Sam’s camp is that the ex-Missouri defensive end will watch this weekend’s KiperFest with his inner circle and, more significantly, the first openly gay NFL Draft prospect will reportedly do so without a live camera crew from either of the two major networks broadcasting the event.
And two thoughts immediately spring to mind:
1. Smart thinking.
2. Clearly, folks in Sam’s inner circle are prepared for the worst-case scenario — that is, Sam, who’s projected as a fifth-, sixth- or seventh-round selection, at best, winds up not being taken at all.
Which, the closer we get to the curtain going up, is becoming a very, very, very serious possibility.
Despite the accolades of his senior season — 11 1/2 sacks, 19 tackles for loss, the Southeastern Conference’s Defensive Player of the Year, consensus All-American — Sam is viewed by many NFL scouts as a classic "tweener": smaller than a typical defensive end, slower and less nimble than most linebackers.
During the NFL Scouting Combine in February, the 6-foot-2, 261-pounder impressed during his news conference, then went out and ran a 40-yard dash in the 4.8s and 4.9s and did fewer bench-press reps than smaller Mizzou teammate Henry Josey — all 5-8, 194 pounds of him.
Nate Silver’s new FiveThirtyEight blog this week crunched the usual Nate Silver numbers, and judged Sam as a likely sixth-ish round projection, and that sixth-ish-round projections are a coin flip to be one of the final 64 or so names off the board. But the more damning nuggets came via the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Sunday, which polled 21 anonymous scouts to gauge the temperature on Sam — and to call the results "lukewarm" would be kind. From Bob McGinn:
Three said fifth round. Three said sixth round. Three said seventh round. Five said they would sign him as a free agent. Seven said they wouldn’t sign him as a free agent.
Three scouts from clubs using the 4-3 defense said emphatically that Sam didn’t fit their scheme. Conversely, two scouts from teams using the 3-4 defense said emphatically that Sam didn’t fit their scheme.
Some caveats here: First, you have to remember that the glass is always half-empty, as far as NFL scouts are concerned, and especially in the spring. Their job is to find flaws and avoid investing in mistakes. Hence, if your weaknesses aren’t Topic 1 of the conversation, they’re Topic 1a.
Second — and this is somewhat in the scouts’ defense — Sam, for all his college production, was always going to be considered a "fringe" NFL prospect, a tough fit. At Mizzou, he played harder than just about anybody in the area code, and scouts don’t have a stopwatch for heart. But they measure just about everything else, and the "everything else" part of it, combined with some lackluster workout results, has turned many front offices from "maybe" to "probably not."
And when a fringe player comes out of the closet, that — well, that complicates things, too. To pass on Sam will be spun, in some circles, as selective homophobia; if the entire draft takes a pass, the catcalls will insinuate league-wide collusion.
The NFL Draft — like the Olympics, soccer, golf or a lot of other televised events where not a whole lot happens over large stretches of time — is about story lines, about narratives. Sam, and Sam’s sexual orientation, is one of the top five narratives of the entire weekend, now, whether the NFL likes it or not.
The cynical view is that the ex-Tiger might’ve known his middling stock the whole time, and that coming out to selective media outlets in February was a calculated move — a gamble that might eventually "guilt" him onto an NFL roster. That’s probably poppycock, of course, and Sam and his representatives have tried to keep the conversation, in his occasional media appearances — including one Wednesday morning on ABC’s "Good Morning America" — framed within the context of a good football player who just happens to be gay, and not the other way around.
"The coaches know that I’m a great football player," Sam told ABC’s Robin Roberts. "Where I go, it doesn’t matter. As long as I get to play and put a jersey on my back, it’s just awesome. I’m going to be proud of wherever I go."
He just might not be as proud of when. Or how.
You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter at @seankeeler or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.