On May 10, 2014, Michael Sam became the 249th overall selection in the 2014 NFL Draft. By choosing him with their final selection (a 7th round pick), the St. Louis Rams made Michael Sam the NFL’s first openly gay player. A 6’2” 260 defensive end and member of the University of Missouri football team, Sam had garnered SEC co-defensive player of the year honors in 2013 and made himself into a consensus All-American. He came out publicly after the end of his senior season at Missouri, and has been a highly politicized figure ever since.

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This politicization has placed both the Rams and the NFL in a precarious position. If Sam makes the Rams’ roster and earns playing time, he will become the first openly gay player on an active NFL gameday roster. Many are anxious to see Sam succeed and it is for this reason that he will be the subject of much media attention. If he enjoys the relatively long, prosperous NFL career that so many wish to see for him, there will be a lot of positive press to go around. Sam will get credit for persevering and annihilating barriers, the Rams will get credit for giving him the chance to do so, and the NFL will get credit for “changing the game”.

 

 

It will be another story entirely, however, if Sam fails to make the Rams roster or ends up having a very short NFL career. A quick glance at some of the tweets that were posted late during the draft by those anxiously awaiting his selection makes that clear:

 

 

 

 

 

Many of those indignant about Sam’s relatively low draft status note that a player as accomplished as Sam at the collegiate level should not be in such a perilous position on the fringes of the NFL. Someone like Sam, they argue, should never have to wait too long to hear is name called. He was too much of a dominant player to be ignored, and for this reason they conclude that Sam’s sexuality was what kept him out of the earlier rounds of the draft and may force him out of the league before his time.

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Sam was co-Defensive Player of the Year in the best conference in college football, but the former Missouri defensive end wasn’t chosen until the 249th pick overall — seven slots before Mr. Irrelevant was crowned as the last pick in the draft…
…Yet amid all of the back-slapping for the NFL, there’s an essential question: Why did it take so long?

Why did Sam have to wait until a team used what is generally regarded as a throwaway pick? Sam demonstrated great courage in revealing before the NFL scouting combine in February — under the pressure of being outed — that he was openly gay. He also made an apparent great sacrifice.

There were punters and kickers chosen before a player who led the Southeastern Conference last season with 10½ sacks and 18 tackles for loss. There were players from small schools who played against less-accomplished competition, who were chosen before Sam. There were undersized linemen just like Sam, chosen before Sam. Was this because Sam is gay?

It sure seems that way, no matter what we’ve heard about the NFL culture being progressive enough — with the league advancing a Respect in the Workplace agenda — to tolerate a player without regard to his sexual orientation.

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If you take the time to really understand the nature of the NFL Draft and Sam’s relation to it, however, you’ll quickly come to understand why those who ascribe Sam’s low draft position to politics are misguided or uninformed. Michael Sam wasn’t one of the last picks in the NFL Draft because of his sexuality. He was one of the last picks in the NFL Draft because he is, quite frankly, not an impressive NFL prospect. In fact, he doesn’t even really have a clear position at the pro level:

Taking the narrative aside, I think Sam could be a reasonably effective player in a 4-3 defensive line rotation, or a run-side endbacker in a 3-4, if he improves his technique and finds a way to use more pure power on the field. The speed probably is what it is, and that’s a problem — because edge-rushers need more than the burst he currently has, and tweeners who move inside require far more ability to move people than he’s shown.

Sam isn’t powerful enough to be a regular down lineman, and he isn’t athletic enough to be a linebacker. At 6’2”, 260, Sam is undersized, but so are many other D-Line prospects. The problem with Sam is that he lacks both the athleticism and the strength to make up for his lack of size. Players with Sam’s combination of negatives (undersized, slow, stiff, not very strong, mediocre technique) do not tend to be drafted much earlier than Sam was. In fact, they don’t tend to be drafted at all:

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He had a very productive senior season, but is considered a tweener at the position due to his size, and his poor combine results had some scouts questioning whether he will even be drafted at all. ESPN tweeted out that in the last six combines, twenty players at the defensive end or linebacker spots were Sam’s size or smaller and also ran a 4.91 40-yard dash or worse. Only three of those twenty were drafted.

One could be tempted to cite Sam’s production at the college level as justification for claims that he was drafted too late, but the statistics regarding that production are actually quite misleading:

Sam produced big time, but… There’s no question that Sam had major production this season, as he led the SEC in sacks and tackles for a loss (which includes sacks). This is probably why he was named SEC defensive player of the year by the media, and co-DPOY (with Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley) by the coaches. However, you have to look at the circumstances of his production. Namely, most of it came in three games of a four-game stretch against inferior competition: Arkansas State (three sacks), Vanderbilt (three sacks) and Florida (three sacks). Sam had a total of a half-sack in his final six games, until he made a huge play on basically the final play of the Cotton Bowl.

So basically in his final five games plus 40 snaps against Oklahoma State—the best competition Sam faced all season—he had no splash plays. The right tackles he faced (as a left end he didn’t go against Texas A&M left tackle Jake Matthews, a projected top-10 pick) in that stretch were more of what he will see in the pros. The right tackles he beat up to gain his production likely wouldn’t be on NFL training-camp rosters.

When asked to face quality opposition at the college level, Sam didn’t respond well. He had 11.5 sacks in 2013, 9 of which came against just 3 teams: Vanderbilt, Florida and Arkansas State. I’d call Vanderbilt an above average SEC side in 2013. Florida was poor, and Arkansas State is a mid-major squad from a decidedly inferior conference. When faced with stronger opposition (Auburn, Tennessee and Texas A&M all had NFL caliber linemen), Sam was almost invisible.

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Finally, one can examine the NFL’s record with regard to highly accomplished college players and see that Sam is not the only one to go through a draft without hearing his name called until the last second.

 

 

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Jackson Jeffcoat was Sam’s equal in more ways than one. Sam was a consensus All-American in 2013 – so was Jeffcoat. Sam was the Defensive Player of the Year in his conference, just as Jeffcoat was in his own. Sam was first team all-conference, and Jeffcoat was first-team all conference. Jeffcoat was, in fact, more highly decorated in college than Sam — he received the Hendricks Award in 2013, an honor given annually to college football’s best defensive end (Sam was a semifinalist for the award).

In fact, you could very well make the case that Jeffcoat was a better NFL prospect than Sam. Jeffcoat had more sacks in 2013 than Sam did (13 vs. 11.5), and also had a much larger career total (26 vs. 18.5). Though Jeffcoat is lighter than Sam (247lbs vs. 261lbs), he is taller (6’3” vs. 6’2”), stronger (18 bench reps vs. 17) more explosive (36 inches vs. 25 inches on the vertical jump) and quite a bit faster (4.61 vs. 4.91 in the 40 yard dash at the NFL combine). Sam put up mediocre numbers in agility tests (7.8 second 3-cone and 4.7 second shuttle), while Jeffcoat was the combines leading performer in each of those examinations (6.97 and 4.18 second times, respectively).

Whereas Sam doesn’t really have a position (he’s undersized for a down lineman and nowhere near quick or agile enough to work as an NFL linebacker), the equally undersized Jeffcoat has shown enough athleticism to work as an outside linebacker and speed rusher in the NFL, meaning that he could arguably have an easier time adjusting physically to the NFL game. Objectively, Jeffcoat had at least as good a case as Sam did for a chance in the NFL, if not a better one.

Unlike Michael Sam, however, Jackson Jeffcoat did not hear his name called by any NFL team during the 2014 NFL Draft. How can this be explained? He has no character issues, comes from a powerhouse program known for building successful professionals (2014 will be the first year since 1937 that not a single Texas Longhorn has been drafted) and has NFL bloodlines. Was Sam more worthy of an NFL draft pick than Jeffcoat?

 

Had Sam been in the position Jeffcoat is right now (undrafted), there would be an uproar about football’s “homophobia” and unjust “blacklisting”. Because the situation is reversed and Jeffcoat’s personal life isn’t worthy of any headlines, however, we don’t hear much about him. We also won’t hear much about Henry Josey (Michael Sam’s college teammate and a 1000 yard rusher), Jordan Lynch (2013 first team all-American, 3rd place in 2013 Heisman voting) or Brock Jensen (3 time national champion). Will those who insist that Michael Sam hasn’t been given a fair shot and hasn’t been drafted high enough also stand up for these players, who were not drafted at all?

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We don’t know what the future holds for Michael Sam. We know that he will get a chance to earn an NFL paycheck, and how well he takes advantage of that opportunity remains to be seen. He could be an also-ran or an all-pro. Whatever the result, his sexuality must not obscure attempts to evaluate his career objectively.

Many observers will be very quick to tie any failure of Sam in the NFL to his sexuality (just as they insisted his low draft position was due to his coming out) and make a host of excuses for him, but that does injustice to the NFL (who are perfectly capable of evaluating talent on merit alone), other players (many of whom are quite wrongly assumed by Sam’s supporters to be less deserving of an NFL spot than Sam is and do not deserve to be dismissed in such a way) and Michael Sam himself (who needs to be judged for his exploits on the field, not his personal life).

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The reality is that Sam is a 7th round pick with quite a few flaws, and while there are plenty of reasons to believe that he can be a success in the NFL, there are also plenty of good reasons (reasons that have nothing at all to do with his sexuality) to suspect that he will not have a long NFL career. That he has gotten an opportunity despite these flaws when so many similarly (if not substantially more) gifted players haven’t even been drafted should say all that needs to be said.

Michael Sam will get what he deserves from the NFL — nothing more, nothing less.