Atlanta could prove to be a good fit for Michael Sam next fall.
The All-American Missouri defensive lineman, who announced that he is gay on Sunday, is exactly the kind of player whom the Falcons need, as they ranked 29th in the NFL last season with 32 sacks. Sam was the AP’s Southeastern Conference’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2013, totaling 11.5 sacks.
The reasons why the Falcons should pick Sam, if he’s available in the third or fourth round where he is projected to go, are almost too numerous to count.
Given that head coach Mike Smith stated that the Falcons need to do a better job of winning the battle on the line of scrimmage on both offense and defense, the Falcons are going to stock up on players at those positions at almost every level of the draft. The Falcons fired three position coaches on the offensive and defensive lines in December with the stated goal of improving their performance there, underscoring the team’s urgency in trying to turn around last season’s 4-12 record.
The belief here is that the Falcons should spend their first pick (sixth overall) on a left tackle to protect their $100-million investment in quarterback Matt Ryan, who took a beating last season and was lucky to avoid injury. That would place a greater emphasis on picking defensive linemen in subsequent rounds. That should make Sam a viable option for the franchise.
Not only does Missouri have a recent history of its defensive linemen turning into top NFL players (San Francisco’s Aldon Smith, New York Jets’ Sheldon Richardson) but the Falcons and general manager Thomas Dimitroff have demonstrated a predilection for former Tigers stars as well. Two of the Falcons’ best players on defense are first- and second-round picks from Missouri (linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, safety William Moore). Weatherspoon was a teammate of Sam’s at Missouri, serving as a team captain in 2009 when Sam redshirted as a freshman.
With the contractual status of free-agent defensive tackle tackle Jonathan Babineaux up in the air and the recent cuts to veteran Asante Samuel and Stephen Nicholas, Weatherspoon and Moore, for the most part, represent the leaders on the Falcons’ defense.
Then there’s Dimitroff himself. When he took the GM job in 2008, he was in his early 40s. As a vegan and and someone who bikes to work on occasion, he typifies the new-wave of general manager in the NFL and modern ways of thinking. While Dimitroff is extremely cautious about the kinds of players whom he chooses to bring into to the team’s locker room, he can not afford to pass on a talented player who might help the team.
Besides, professional athletes’ thinking appears to have evolved rapidly on this issue, mirroring much of the rest of the country. Cornerback Brent Grimes, who was a member of the Falcons just a season ago, tweeted on Sunday: "I’ve never really understood the big deal about knowing someone’s sexual preference. I don’t care" and "Unless your (sic) having or trying to have sex with somebody, I just feel like their sexual preference shouldn’t really matter to you."
Increasingly, people across the sports spectrum are asking, "What’s the issue?"
As coach, Smith brings a no-nonsense approach. It’s impossible to think that he or owner Arthur Blank would tolerate any taunting or dissent on this issue. Among the charities that Blank’s family foundation lists as discretionary grant recipients on its website is the National Center For Civil And Human Rights, whose mission would seem to align with employing the first openly gay NFL player. The center lists as its mission on its site: "To empower people to take the protection of every human’s rights personally."
There are 32 teams in the NFL and all of them need good players. Sam appears to fit that bill. Given the Falcons’ needs and the atmosphere the organization has cultivated, that should be all that matters come June’s draft.