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Michael Sam: Beyond The Headlines

As you have heard, Missouri DE Michael Sam recently announced that he is gay. What we at BTB really want to know is 'Can he play?'


Recently my front-page colleague, Tom Ryle, penned a post speculating about the fact that Michael Sam might be on the Dallas Cowboys radar as a mid-round draft selection when the 2014 NFL Draft kicks off in the spring. In his article, Tom cited both Jeff Sullivan and Bryan Broaddus, both of whom have "insider access" as employees of either the team's official publication or the team's website, as saying that Sam could be a possibility. Given that most so-called "experts" state that the Mizzou defensive lineman is more suited to play OLB in a 3-4 scheme rather than as a DE in the 4-3 that the Cowboys currently run, I felt that it was time to take a second look at how Sam might fit into Rod Marinelli's defense.

First, let's take a look at his size since that could impact his suitability for the 4-3 defense. Sam is 6'2", and close to 260 pounds. By comparison, DeMarcus Ware is 6'4" and weighs in the 260's; Anthony Spencer checks in as 6'3" and also clocks in at the upper 260's. Although both were originally OLB's in Dallas, both were considered by the team to have adequate size to play DE on Rod Marinelli's defensive line. One factor that that was brought out by BTB's own Joey Ickes is that Sam has incredible length for his size. His wingspan is 80 1/4 inches, which translates to what is considered normal for a man standing in the 6'6" to 6'8" range. This will work to Sam's advantage on the playing field.

As far as body type goes, Greg A. Bedard at MMQB compared Sam to three guys currently in the NFL; LaMarr Woodley, Terrell Suggs, and Trent Cole (all three are OLBs). Although they may be similar in body type, Sam does not have the lateral movement ability of these players. That relegates him to a role where he can simply play straight ahead. That means a system like the one used in Dallas where he can commit to the pass rush and worry less about what happens outside of him. In short, Michael Sam is going to be a dedicated pass rusher, situational for now, but with the potential to expand his role.

Next lets look at what Mr. Broaddus had to say when asked about Sam being a possibility for Dallas. From Tom's post we have this:

Sure he is. He can rush the passer.

That is where the rubber meets the road. Marinelli's defense calls for 'rushmen' who can get heat on the quarterback. They are not asked to do things like two-gap. All that is expected is for them to get upfield and into the quarterbacks face. If they can tackle the ball carrier on the way to the QB fine, but it is not the primary task in Marinelli's mind. This is the one thing Michael Sam can do.

He is not a great pass rusher, Sam lacks the technique needed to be considered to be at that level. That is something that Marinelli teaches, and teaches well. What Sam brings is determination and effort. You can add a willingness to learn and improve to the equation as well. For now Sam basically just rushes straight ahead, his one real move is a dip move. According to most accounts, Sam takes coaching well, and he would be a good project for a top NFL defensive line coach to develop. Other than how he responds to instruction, Sam's best traits are a quick first step and enough speed to get home when he gets free. He plays with strong hands and has fairly decent functional strength, but would benefit from more work under a NFL caliber strength coach. In watching Sam, the one thing that immediately stands out is how hard he plays on every snap. He plays to the whistle.

Michael Sam is not the guy who is going to come in and dominate the game. He is a guy who will give a solid, straight ahead, blue collar effort. He will not dazzle with athleticism, blind you with speed, or overpower his man. What he will do is sell-out to get in the quarterback's face at every opportunity, with a fair chance at getting home before the ball is released. He is a situational player who performed at his best as part of a defensive line rotation that was worked in and out of the game frequently to keep them fresh while at Missouri. With the Cowboys his role would be mostly as a nickel pass rusher. With effort, both from himself and from Marinelli and Leon Lett, Michael Sam can develop into a solid member of the defensive unit. If you are looking for the next superstar pass rusher, continue your search; however, if you are looking for a guy who will step up and give you a solid performance with a high motor and the potential to develop beyond that point, you should give Sam a second look.

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