KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Most NFL Draft experts are in agreement: As a pro football prospect, Missouri defensive end Michael Sam projects to be a third-to-fifth-round selection.
But Sam’s revelation Sunday that he intends to become the first openly gay man to play in the NFL casts considerable doubt whether he still will be considered a middle-to-late round draft pick in May.
Or drafted at all.
“We’re in uncharted territory,” said Mike Mayock, a draft and game analyst for NFL Network.
There was already a question whether Sam, who’s listed at 6 feet 2 and 255 pounds, has the size to play defensive end in the NFL or the attributes to play as an outside linebacker or situational pass rusher.
Combine that with the unknown effect the first gay player could have on team morale in the macho world of the NFL, the reaction by ticket buyers and sponsors, and the media firestorm created by television trucks camped out for every practice, and clubs may have to look hard at whether a third-day draft pick will be worth all the distractions.
“The first thing you have to do is evaluate the football player, which I already have done,” Mayock said. “I watched tape, I watched him at the Senior Bowl. I thought he would go somewhere between the third and the fifth rounds. He’s a situational pass rusher … and a core special-teams player. I don’t think he can stand up and be a full-time outside linebacker.
“Depending on how much you believe in his pass-rush ability, he’s closer to the third round, and the less you believe, he’s closer to the fifth round.”
But Sam’s coming out as a gay man could influence a team’s decision.
“Some general managers and some owners … may say, ‘Hey, how about this kid, having the fortitude to come out like this?’ ” Mayock said. “ ‘On top of being a good football player, this is the kind of guy I want in the locker room. He’s a leader. … ’
“On the other hand, there will be teams that say, ‘Man, do I want to deal with this? Let somebody else deal with this.’ ”
Already, some club executives, behind the cloak of anonymity, have told media outlets that Sam’s revelation dropped his draft stock precipitously. Others, such as Chicago Bears general manager Phil Emery, gave Sam the benefit of the doubt.
“It is about his skill set as a football player to add positively to a team’s goals, and that’s how he will be evaluated,” Emery wrote in a letter to the Chicago Sun-Times.
Russ Lande, a longtime draft observer who now covers the draft for Sports on Earth and scouts for the Canadian Football League’s Toronto Argonauts, doesn’t believe Sam’s coming out will have a big impact on where he’ll be drafted.
“While some teams, for whatever reason, are going to have their issues and move their draft boards around,” Lande said, “I think the teams with stable leadership, in terms of the general manager and head coach and (who) have a strong locker room with leaders, are not going to worry about it.
“They’ll say, ‘Let’s figure out how good the player is, let’s see if he fits what we do, and if he can contribute and if he can help us win, he’ll be on the draft board.’ ”
Sam, a unanimous All-American and the Southeastern Conference defensive player of the year, posted a school-record 11 1/2 sacks, but three came against Arkansas State, three were against Vanderbilt and three were against Florida — “all suspect offenses,” ESPN draft expert Todd McShay said, “and he had only 2 1/2 sacks in the last seven games.”
Sam had difficulty at the Senior Bowl transitioning from playing as a hand-on-the ground defensive end to a standup outside linebacker.
“There are not a lot of productive and contributing defensive ends in the NFL who are under 6 foot 2,” said McShay, who has a fourth-round grade on Sam. “The market for Michael Sam just as a football player is going to be smaller than the market for a lot of other players because he’s going to have to make that transition. To not look great at the Senior Bowl, trying to transition to working in space, dropping in coverage.”
Meanwhile, Sam’s fellow Mizzou defensive end, Kony Ealy, who had nine sacks, is expected to be a first-round pick.
Sam, however, will have ample time to build his draft stock. He’ll participate in next week’s NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, perform at Missouri’s Pro Day and have an opportunity to work out for teams at their facilities.
The interviews at the combine and on visits to NFL cities will be every bit as important as what Sam does on the field.
“You have to ask with every prospect. … ‘How does this player fit the personality of our team?’ ” McShay said. “This is why you spend so much time looking into the backgrounds of players, psychological tests … teams are specifically looking for traits and personality and how guys fit in the locker room.”
McShay compared the media frenzy that will begin next week to the circus that followed controversial Florida quarterback Tim Tebow in 2010 and Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o, who last year was trying to live down the story of his fake girlfriend. If anything, Sam may have taken the spotlight from Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel this year.
“You can rest assured that Michael Sam will get as much attention in mid-May as the first-round pick of the team that takes him,” said ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. “If you bring him in as a fourth-rounder or you sign him as an undrafted free agent, the potential for distraction will exist.
“I don’t know how you factor that in … the media focus will be on Michael Sam. Once the season starts, it won’t be, but do you want to bring that into your team is a question you want to look at.”
Te’o, who was college football’s consensus defensive player of the year in 2012, slipped to the second round before San Diego took him. Tebow, a first-round pick by Denver, is out of the league after failed trials with New England and the New York Jets.
The media tumult and distractions that accompanied Tebow could be one reason he’s no longer in the league.
“People say I’m crazy,” Lande said, “but are there legitimately 95 quarterbacks in the NFL that are better than Tim Tebow? There are probably 50 or 60, but he’s good enough to be a third quarterback somewhere. But do you want to deal with the headache of that for a third quarterback?”
That’s the obstacle Sam will have to overcome, starting with the 12-week draft process.
“We’re going to pick this thing apart for the next several months,” Mayock said. “A lot of people are going to be really tired of it by the time the draft rolls around. …
“Ultimately what I think and hope will happen, is he … works hard, he earns the respect of his veteran teammates, and a year from now, he’s just another guy on that team. That’s what happened to Te’o.”