Michael Sam, the University of Missouri defensive end who publicly proclaimed his homosexuality earlier this month, hoped his performance at the NFL Combine would silence doubters. Instead, it only created more doubters.
The AP’s SEC defensive player of the year’s performance in the forty-yard dash, bench press, and vertical leap more closely resembled a good high school player than an NFL prospect. Like the Senior Bowl, where Sam sought to showcase his versatility but only highlighted that he couldn’t play outside linebacker, the NFL Combine won’t help Michael Sam come draft day.
Sam benched 225 pounds for 17 repetitions. By way of comparison, Boston College’s Kaleb Ramsey scored highest in the test among defensive linemen by pushing 36 repetitions. Though Sam’s grouping includes much larger and stronger interior linemen, the fact that just one player performed worse in the bench press undermines the argument that he’s a legitimate day one or two pick in the NFL Draft.
Just as pass rushers require power, speed and quickness remain part of the job description. Sam turned in a sub-standard performance in the forty-yard dash, too. He ran a 4.91, a time eclipsed by good defensive ends on varsity high school squads. Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, and so many of the quarterbacks Sam looks to chase next season run much better times than that. Do scouts expect Sam to catch them? Jadeveon Clowney, the elite pass rusher available in the draft, ran a 4.53 forty on the electronic clock after running several sub-4.5s on hand-timed sprints.
Sam jumped 25-1/2 inches in the vertical leap, further solidifying opinion that he lacks the explosiveness and athleticism of an NFL player. His relatively diminutive size–six-foot-two, 260 pounds–already raised questions about where he might line up in a defense. Not big enough as a down lineman, not athletic enough as a standing linebacker, Sam making an NFL roster appears an unsettled question at this point. If he had displayed raw athleticism in Indianapolis, teams might have seen value in him as a nickel-package rusher who could contribute on special teams. But given that Sam lacks the athletic gifts that many NFL special teamers enjoy, and the physical gifts possessed by most pro defensive ends, it’s entirely possible that he finds himself on a practice squad or not on an NFL roster come September.
What Michael Sam has going for him going into the NFL Draft is that he is, by all accounts, a football player. Remember Ohio State’s Vernon Gholsten? He dropped jaws at the NFL Combine. He didn’t drop any quarterbacks as a member of the Jets and washed out of the NFL before the expiration of his rookie contract. As Justin Ernest, who pushed 225 pounds for 51 reps back in 1999 could tell you, being a weight-room hero does not translate into being a gridiron hero. Sam makes his case for the NFL not on the track or in the weight room but on his game film, where he made 11.5 sacks and tackled 19 ball carriers in the backfield this season.