Michael Sam must show scouts he can master the measurables
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The short answer is, of course, "run the (expletive) faster." The long answer as to what Michael Sam needs to do at the University of Missouri’s Pro Day on Thursday is a bit more … nuanced.
"I think they want to see what he does in defensive line drills," longtime draftnik Russ Lande of GM Jr Scouting tells FOXSportsKansasCity.com. "I think they’d like to see a little more quickness and explosion."
"I mean, the No. 1 thing, and that would be the No. 1 thing," says Dan Shonka, Ourlads’ Scouting Services general manager and national scout, "is (that) he can show his speed and athletic ability."
Welcome to the NFL’s spring evaluation (silly) season, that unholy amalgamation of the old Presidential Physical Fitness Tests and the Miss Idaho Pageant, in which future millionaires are herded like cattle and treated like meat. When last we saw Sam — the ex-Missouri Tigers star, reigning SEC Defensive Player of the Year and, oh, yeah, the first openly gay NFL draft prospect — it was last month in Indianapolis, where the Texan served as the third ring of the annual circus that is the NFL Scouting Combine.
To recap: No. 52 won the press conference. The hearts and minds of NFL scouts, not so much.
Pro personnel types, for whom the glass is always half-empty (and cracked), have already dogged the former Tigers defensive end with unflattering labels — none of them related to his sexual orientation.
He just needs to improve his overall numbers athletically.
Dan Shonka, Ourlads' Scouting Services
At 6-foot-2, 261 pounds, Sam came away from the Senior Bowl as a "’tweener," and "small" for a prototypical defensive end. After posting a 4.91 in the 40-yard dash — the goal was a time in the 4.7s — recording a vertical leap of 25 1/2 inches and bench-pressing 225 pounds 17 times, three fewer than former Mizzou teammate and 5-8 running back Henry Josey, you could add "slow" and "unathletic" to the dossier as well.
Not our words. Theirs.
"You know, it was probably 50-50," Lande, a former Browns and Rams scout, says of Sam’s combine experience. "The on-field (performance) was not great. It didn’t help him. I think off the field, in terms of interviews and stuff, he did very well. (Overall), it likely kept him where he was going in, which was a Day 3 draft pick."
Fifth round. Sixth, probably. Maybe even the seventh, depending on the team and the need and how the chips fall in front of him.
"I think the best-case scenario," Lande says, "would maybe be at the bottom of the third round."
"But I think that would be unlikely."
Shonka says Ourlads graded 43 defensive linemen at the combine, as far as athletic ability and potential; Sam wound up No. 33 overall.
"Basically, it was the bigger guys that were behind him," Shonka says. "So the thing is, he just needs to improve his overall numbers athletically."
To put Sam’s Indy numbers in context, Jadeveon Clowney of South Carolina ran a 4.53 and verticaled a 37.5. At 6-5 and 266 pounds, the former Gamecock is also built like a small aircraft carrier. So despite questions about Clowney’s work ethic and general motivation, he’s projected to slip no lower than the third pick in the NFL Draft, and will likely go first overall to the Houston Texans.
Shonka says the key combination for Sam this week, if he wants to stick as a pass rusher, is the combination of the 40 time and the vertical leap; scouts will use the former as a benchmark for top-line speed, the latter for explosiveness.
"You’d like to see a guy in the high 20s (in the vertical)," Shonka says. "And he probably would run a better 40 (at Mizzou). … If he gets in the 4.7s, that’s kind of a rule of thumb a lot of people in the league have to (see); to be an edge pass rusher, you have to run in the 4.7s."
But here’s the good news for the Sam camp: It’s doable. Shonka says he saw unofficial times, individual scout times for Sam’s 40 at the combine slotted anywhere in the 4.79 to 4.87 range, which were better than what was officially recorded.
And here’s something else that didn’t make the headlines coming out of Indy: The shorter the distance, the quicker Sam looked in general. Shonka says the ex-Tiger ran a 1.96 in the rip-rush left drill and a 1.97 in the swim-technique right drill, and that any number under 2.0 seconds is ideal, as far as coming off the edge. Ex-Pitt defensive tackle Aaron Donald posted times of 1.90 and 1.98, respectively, and Donald, at 6-1, 285, is projected as a mid-to-late first-round draft pick.
"That combine was just one part of the puzzle," Shonka says. "Fortunately for Michael, the biggest part is what he did on the football field."
You can qualify and parse those 11 1/2 sacks and 19 tackles for loss last fall all you like, but the fact remains: They happened in the SEC, they happened in the best collegiate conference in the land, against the best and the baddest the Football Bowl Subdivision had to offer.
The film, as they say, doesn’t lie.
"But you know," Shonka chuckles, "it does make you scratch your head when you see what he ran."
You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter at @seankeeler or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.