Obviously, the biggest news in the sports world right now is Missouri defensive end Michael Sam’s announcement that he is gay. Sam is entering the NFL Draft this year, and if drafted he will become the first openly gay player in NFL history. Much of the coverage around Sam has focused on the social and historical aspects of this announcement, but what about the football reality?
Articles are popping up all over the internet arguing that this team or that team should target Sam. In reality, many of those articles are about wanting a certain team to be seen as pioneering or accepting, not about Sam actually contributing on the football field. Sam was an All-American and the SEC Defensive Player of the Year this season, recording 11.5 sacks. However, he is not nearly as highly rated a prospect as that resume might make you think.
Most scouting evaluations have Sam as about a 4th round prospect, with some variation a little higher or lower (obviously the combine could change that one way or the other). The main criticism of Sam is simple, and it is one that countless prospects have faced over the years: he’s a tweener. Sam is too small to play defensive end, but he’s too slow and lacks the pass coverage skills to play linebacker. For that reason, the team that drafts him will have to work to develop him into one of those positions on permanent basis, or hope that he will become a pass rush specialist in nickel packages.
Teams had enough concerns about Sam before this announcement, and he is very far from a sure thing from a football standpoint. The media circus that will surround him will drive some teams away, as no team wants their fourth or fifth round pick to the total center of attention. Furthermore, players picked on Day 3 of the draft have a tough battle just to make the team, and Sam will be no different.
In the end, what may scare teams the most is drafting Sam, not liking the results on the field, and then being the team that cut the league’s first openly gay player. The truth about Sam is that because he is not an elite prospect, the risk may outweigh the reward. I sincerely hope Sam enjoys a long and successful NFL career, as I do for every draft hopeful. However, it is his flaws as a football player that could prove to be the biggest obstacle to that, not his sexual orientation.