Leading up to the NFL draft on May 8-10, Shutdown Corner will examine some of the most interesting prospects in the class, breaking down their strengths and weaknesses.
6-foot-2, 261 pounds
2013 stats: 48 tackles, 19 tackles for loss, 11.5 sacks, two forced fumbles, one fumble recovery (returned for a touchdown)
40-yard dash: 4.91 seconds (official time at NFL scouting combine)
The good: Michael Sam was the 2013 co-Defensive player of the Year in the SEC along with Alabama's C.J. Mosley (profiled here), and recent winners of that award — Jarvis Jones, Jadeveon Clowney, Morris Claiborne, Nick Fairley, among them — have received serious NFL attention. Sam isn't the prospect that those players are, but he was very productive on a greatly improved Mizzou defense that won the SEC East, went 12-2 overall and finished No. 5 in the country. Sam put an exclamation point on the Tigers' season by capping the bowl victory over Oklahoma State with a strip sack in the final minute of the game to preserve the victory.
Along with Kony Ealy, who is projected to be a top-50 pick, and two underclassmen, Sam helped make up one of the better defensive lines in the country. His all-out effort is clearly something that stands out on tape, and he dramatically improved over the course of his four college seasons. He also has been regarded as one of the hardest workers in the Missouri weight room and has not missed extended time because of injuries over his career.
The bad: Sam is perhaps a below-average athlete as a defensive end, even with his weight-room prowess. He lacks explosion, which was evident in his tape and his combine workout — especially his stunningly bad vertical leap (25 1/2 inches, worst among all defensive ends by two inches) and his sub-par bench press total (17 reps, tied for second-fewest among ends). Sam is not a quick-twitch athlete, and often times he would overrun plays in college with an inability to react, switch gears and move laterally.
Nine of Sam's sacks in 2013 came against Arkansas State, Vanderbilt (vs. a freshman right tackle) and a Florida offense that was a complete mess when it came to Columbia. Sam was invisible against Auburn in the SEC title game and for the first 59 minutes against Oklahoma State. Sam also came off the field a lot for a starter, which, even on such a talented group, is a bit concerning. You could argue, when it's all said and done, that he was the fourth-best defensive end on the team behind Ealy and 2013 juniors Markus Golden and Shane Ray. There simply is no pass-rush diversity in Sam's game, with no evident burst, hip bend or countermoves.
The verdict: Sam was a nice college player who had a big senior season but really didn't come into the mainstream spotlight until he announced his sexuality to the world. With that behind him, we and the NFL are focusing in strictly on his ability to make it in the pros.
Sam thrived on wearing down his opponents, often collecting sacks in fourth quarters with his effort and base strength. He makes up for his lack of real burst with a nice first step and good instincts, too. The Mizzou coaches played him anywhere from a wide-9 technique on the strong side, all the way down to a 4i, and he answered the bell for them most times.
But Sam struggled mightily in linebacker drills at the Senior Bowl and doesn't appear to have the lateral ability to play anything but as a down rusher in the NFL. Chances are, he'll have to make it as a core special teamer and part-timer rusher, but don't assume that this tireless worker can't work his way onto a roster. It's just likely that he's not going to hear his name called until the third day of the draft, and perhaps not even at all.
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