Michael Sam’s Other Big Challenge: Becoming a Linebacker

Michael sam rotator

By now you’ve probably heard the news that University of Missouri player and NFL Draft prospect Michael Sam could become the first openly-gay athlete to compete in the National Football League. It was a groundbreaking admission, reported Sunday by both ESPN and Sports Illustrated, and no sooner had the news of his coming-out ripple through the sports world (and Twitter) had the question emerged about how such a decision would affect his forthcoming draft prospects.

So what are his draft prospects? Most scouts had him projected as a middle-to-late rounder—likely in the third of fourth rounds—and mainly because of his ferocity as a pass rusher, a role in which he excelled last season. He scored 11.5 sacks and 19 tackles for a loss over 12 games before receiving the SEC Co-Defensive Player of the Year honor and becoming the second Tiger in school history to be named a unanimous First Team All-American. “Michael Sam’s an animal,” junior defensive tackle Lucas Vincent told the Kansas City Star back in October. “He’s always upbeat, positive and he’s always ready to go. He always keeps us on the sideline and that next level mindset.”

According to CBS Sports, Sam is particularly dangerous because his initial burst, calling attention to the fact that he’s “very quick of the snap, showing the ability to attack off the edge as well as the burst to penetrate through gaps.” The site also emphasized his surprising effectiveness against the run, considering his size, but pointed to his size and flexibility as his weaknesses.

As he tries to make the transition to the pros, like so many college standouts before him, Sam has found himself in a tricky position. He’s a big (but by no means enormous) 6’2, 255 pounds, and pro scouts aren’t sure where to put him. Some say he is too small for his current position, defensive end, while also too slow for outside linebacker (which is where too-small-for-defensive-end defensive ends go when they want to play on Sundays). Before last weekend, NFL Network analyst Charles Davis had broken down Sam’s draft prospects in grim terms: “I don’t think he’s a linebacker… I’m sorry. With this size, he looks like a linebacker, but he plays the game straight ahead, not backing up, and I think that’s his best way.”

A report by Sport Illustrated’s Doug Farrar said Sam is “not an overwhelmingly powerful bull-rusher, nor does he yet possess the array of hand moves and foot fakes that would allow him to elude blockers one-on-one. As a result, he tends to get overwhelmed in the wash of blockers too often.”

As the world will be watching to see where he goes in April, one can only hope he proves the doubters wrong. And that includes the ones who carry clipboards on the sidelines.

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