As day 3 of the 2014 NFL Draft got underway last Saturday, the focus shifted from Johnny Football and 2nd round steals to teams using their remaining picks with an intent to reel in as much talent as possible. Following the draft, fans would have one eye on the undrafted players their teams had stockpiled with rookie minicamps on the horizon. In other words, business as usual. But before all that, the other eye focused squarely upon the potential landing spot of Missouri Defensive End Michael Sam.
Sam's story is well known to most by now. The 2013 co-SEC Defensive player of the year and all-conference selection, Sam revealed that he was gay in early February 2014. From that moment on, much attention has come Sam's way. Simply put, it is attention that has transcended Football. Sam has handled himself well off the field, embracing the opportunity to have a chance at becoming the first openly gay NFL player. Michael Sam is now on track to become the NFL's first openly gay player.
In the weeks following his announcement, Sam put in a less-than-stellar performance at the scouting combine in Indianapolis. Already projected as a mid-round pick at best, Sam's measurables did not stand out. His numbers on the bench press and times in the cone drills and jumps, where explosiveness is gauged, were pedestrian at best. Although he improved some of these statistics at his pro day workout, Sam still faced long odds of being selected any higher than the latter stages of day three on draft weekend. Regardless, Sam continued to work towards his dream of playing professional Football. He just needed a chance.
And all it took was one phone call from one team, the St. Louis Rams.
The Rams selected Sam in round 7 with the 249th overall pick. Coach Jeff Fisher spoke highly of Sam and his Football skills. Disregarding the measurables, turning on the tape implies that the former Mizzou standout can, indeed, play Football at a high level. It is no easy task being pegged as one of the top two defensive players in the Southeastern Conference. Sam blossomed into a forceful influence at Defensive End for Mizzou, teaming with fellow 2014 draftee Kony Ealy to form a formidable pass rush bookend along the Tigers' defensive line. After recording 11.5 sacks and 19 tackles for loss, he was bestowed the all-conference honors and co-defensive player of the year award. A good portion of his production may have come as a result of plays being designed to head in the opposite direction of Ealy, but one cannot fault Sam for capitalizing on the opportunities that came his way. He now hopes to do the same with this opportunity in St. Louis.
It's hard to imagine a better landing spot for Michael Sam than the Gateway City. Here are three reasons why St. Louis is the perfect home for Sam:
Sam thrived as a Missouri Tiger, and now has a chance to remain in the "Show-Me" State beyond his college career. The native Texan was a fan favorite in Columbia, and many Tiger fans also support the Rams. Sam spent 5 seasons at Mizzou, redshirting year one and eventually finishing up his career with decorated honors. He showed marked improvement throughout his time as a student-athlete, and joined the likes of Ealy and Sheldon Richardson up front defensively as Missouri made the transition from the Big 12 to the SEC. The familiarity level between Sam, the state of Missouri, and its adoring Football fans further soften the landing spot. In addition, the Rams drafted Sam's former Missouri teammate E.J. Gaines a round earlier. Both players now have a familiar face around the facility as they transition to the pros. That said, Sam would have been willing to play anywhere if it meant being picked higher, the way things would have worked out if he had his druthers.
2. Football Reasons
From a pure Football standpoint, Sam fits in well with the Rams and the personnel they have assembled along their defensive front. He will have a chance to join the likes of Michael Brockers, Robert Quinn, Chris Long, all high draft picks, to form a daunting front four as defensive coordinator Gregg Williams and defensive minded Head Coach Fisher look to bring the team forward with 2014 1st rounder Aaron Donald also on board. If Sam does make the team, he will likely carve out a role as a pass rush specialist on 3rd downs. With opposing offensive lines having to contain players such as Brockers, Quinn and Long, Sam will be freed up to do what he does best; get to the Quarterback. The table will be set for Sam to absorb some action that will be influenced his way by virtue of his imposing teammates up front, and he will be poised to take advantage of it just as he did in college playing alongside Ealy and Richardson. Gregg Williams has proven throughout his many seasons in the league that if you are in a uniform, you will have a role to play in his defense. Much like Bobby McCray in New Orleans, Renaldo Wynn in Washington, or Kenny Holmes in Tennessee, Sam could be earmarked for a situational role in Williams's defense should he earn his spot on the roster. Sam's best skill: rushing the Quarterback.
3. It Just Makes Sense
Combining the two aforementioned reasons, Michael Sam fits the profile of a player who can thrive under the tutelage of Fisher and Williams from a Football standpoint. Sexual orientation has nothing to do with sacking a Quarterback. At the end of the day, Sam is a Football player. He possesses a high Football IQ which enhances his ability to anticipate snap counts. This helps compensate for some of the raw explosiveness he lacks as an athlete. His intensity can't be measured in short shuttles or broad jumps, and that tenacity is what helped him climb from high school offensive lineman to All-SEC Defensive End. Sam will benefit from the coaching he receives in St. Louis, and from the teammates around him. If any NFL team was willing to take a flyer on Sam in the draft's final round, all signs pointed to St. Louis. It's home now for Michael Sam, a home he hopes to make his for 2014 and beyond.
Michael Sam still faces lengthy odds of making it past final cuts at the end of August. But all he needs is a chance, a chance he now has thanks to the St. Louis Rams. A handful of other franchises were said to be prepared to court Sam had he gone undrafted, but fortunately for the 24 year old, that was a bridge that did not have to be crossed. It will be up to him now, to let his Football do the talking, to stick to what got him in this position and not succumb to the inevitably heightened media scrutiny and coverage that will accompany his presence in Rams camp. The team is well aware of such potential hurdles, but that did not prevent them from using one of their draft picks on a player they view as a potentially useful talent.
As things unfolded, Michael Sam got his chance. It's all on him now. Football is all that matters, all that should matter.
And the rest of us? Let him play Football. If he's good enough, he'll make the team. If he's not, he won't. It's all quite that simple, despite how complicated many pundits may wish us to believe the situation is, it all really just comes down to Football.
Sam came out to his college teammates before the 2013 season. If those 18-22 year old young men could take the news in stride and keep their focus on the task at hand, going from losing season to SEC East champs, surely the 22-35 year-olds inside the Rams' locker room can do the same. Surely we can, too.
Sam could end up making the team, waived, on the practice squad, someone else's practice squad, Injured Reserve, another roster, or out of Football by summer's end. The most imminent and ultimate decision will lie with the St. Louis Rams, and Michael Sam will do everything he possibly can to make the result of that decision a positive one for both himself and the Rams.
The "Show-Me" State kept Sam in its backyard. They showed us their belief that Sam is a Football player who could have a chance to help better their franchise. Show me a better place for Michael Sam to continue his Football career, and i'll show you who the Houston Oilers took in the 10th round. Good Luck, Mr. Sam. Go play Football.