INDIANAPOLIS -- There are many ways to define a person, but for Michael Sam, I am focused on one aspect: who is he as a football player?
On Saturday at Lucas Oil Stadium, Sam addressed the media and answered questions about his fit at the next level and whether or not his “tweener” status is valid.
“I'm a pass rusher,” Sam responded. “If you put me in a situation to get the quarterback, I'm going to get the quarterback. This is a passing league, I'd like to believe in myself as a good pass rusher.”
As Sam makes the jump from the college level to the pros, it's time to pop the hood and find out how his football skill-set translates to the NFL.
First off, let's talk about Sam's background:
Sam played at the University of Missouri and is now looking to take his game to the NFL. He was a two-star high school recruit and hoped to receive a scholarship from Texas A&M. But when that offer never came, he picked the Tigers over Arizona State and Colorado State, redshirting in 2009 in his first season in Columbia. Sam proved to be a valuable reserve as a redshirt freshman and sophomore, producing when he had the chance to get on the field with 53 tackles including 10 for loss over his first two years.
Sam became a full-time starter as a junior in 2012 and emerged as an All-SEC performer as a senior in 2013 with a conference-best 19.0 tackles for loss and 11.5 sacks. He earned All-American accolades and was tabbed the SEC Co-Defensive Player of the Year along with Alabama LB C.J. Mosley.
Now Sam's strengths…
Sam has a compact build with good muscle definition throughout his upper and lower body. He uses a quick first step to penetrate gaps, droppings his pads to get low and flatten past the outside shoulder of the edge blocker. Sam is relentless in pursuit and closes very fast. He is physical at the point of attack with a strong inside move and a “bull in a china shop” mentality.
Sam is determined as a rusher with a nonstop motor and hustle from snap-to-whistle, never cheating himself or his teammates. He is active and his head is always in the game, showing a team-first attitude that is respected by the coaches and players. Sam had above average production as a senior with 23 career starts in the SEC.
And Sam's weaknesses…
Sam lacks ideal height and length for the position. He plays tight and lacks smooth change of direction skills to easily redirect his momentum in space. Sam is too easily engaged at the point of attack and struggles to shed or track the ball once locked up. His hand use is undeveloped with a limited amount of pass rush moves in his arsenal, struggling to deceive blockers with his limbs.
Sam has little experience dropping with cover assignments and isn't a natural space player, looking like a fish out of water at linebacker at the Senior Bowl. His thought process seems to stall at times and he needs to improve his read/react awareness. Sam lacks a natural skill-set and doesn't have the scheme versatility to fit every defensive system at the next level. Most of his production came in a four-game span against very average competition.
What Sam can do at the Combine to help himself...
At the Senior Bowl, Sam mostly lined up at linebacker throughout the week of practice and did not have a good showing as he adjusted on the fly to the new position. But at the Combine, he is listed as a defensive end and is expected to work out as both a defensive lineman and stand up linebacker. Sam will be able to help himself with positive numbers in several drills:
10-yard split – will help show his get-off quickness, initial burst and natural reflexes to spring off the line and get up the field.
Three-cone drill – will help show his change of direction skills, footwork and hip flexibility when redirecting in small areas.
Vertical jump – will help show lower body explosion and leg strength to burst out of his stance and use his reach at full extension.
Studying him on film, Sam showed a relentless motor and had a few plays where he was able to use his natural leverage to beat blocks, but he struggled to be a factor if he didn't win with his first step quickness and his instincts and counter moves were below average. So the results in the drills mentioned above might give evaluators a better idea of his overall athleticism.
Bottom line on Michael Sam, the football player…
Sam has a tweener skill-set and struggles to distinguish himself as a NFL prospect in any one area, projecting him in the mid-to-late rounds as a player who will need to prove his worth as a nickel rusher to stay on a NFL roster.