NPF: READING INTO

In one of my previous lives I was paid small amounts of money to write things about football. Specifically I wrote about NFL draft prospects; I was an early adopter of Draft Mania that has overtaken sports publications and networks in the last ten years. In the late Eighties and early Nineties there was none of the circus you see today. Mel Kiper was some schmuck who hawked an annual draft guide in ads in Pro Football Weekly. It was a spiral-bound packet of black-and-white copier paper, the kind you make at Kinko's.

When I began grad school in 2003, I had to let the draft writing go by the wayside. I didn't have the time to commit to it anymore and it's not possible to write anything useful or accurate without investing the necessary time. The thing is, I used to be not-bad at it. Sometimes I see the overwhelming amount of space networks like ESPN devote to the NFL draft today and I wonder if I made a bad career choice (Hint: I did). But in any case, I've been planning to come out of retirement for day because of a player in this year's draft class who is attracting the attention of people who ordinarily don't give two shakes about football: Michael Sam.

The amount of media attention being focused on this guy right now is completely unfair, but could have been predicted in advance of his announcement on ESPN (He had told his college teammates privately and without fanfare about a year ago). And now the NFL is getting scrutiny from a lot of places where the football side of what's about to happen is not well understood. Based on events of the past few weeks, Sam is likely to be a late-round draft pick. And I'm pretty sure that when it happens, "It must be because he's gay" is going to be a most common response. It's a little more complicated than that.

The day before Sam made his announcement, he was likely to be a mid-round (3rd/4th) pick. These guys are usually productive college players who lack ideal size or speed to impress the NFL or guys who are physically gifted but who never really did much in college. Sam is the former. The day after he made his announcement, he was still a mid-round pick. That's not naive; NFL executives and coaches are under intense pressure to win now and they would draft a guy who wore pink panties and had two dicks growing out of his chin if they thought it would help them win. I'm not so naive to think that everyone in the league is open and accepting of gay people, but if they think this guy can take down quarterbacks they'll put up with a lot of baggage (as they define it).

The problem is that Sam went to the NFL Combine (a tryout camp, basically) and took a major dump. For a pass-rusher without great size, he ran a very slow 40-yard dash (4.92) and put up a pitiful 17 reps on the bench press. By normal human standards he's a phenomenal athlete, but those numbers are basically those of a player who isn't good enough to get drafted at all. In fact, it's only because he showed such good production on the field at Missouri that someone will take a shot at him in the late (5th-7th) rounds.

Sam improved upon those numbers just a bit on Thursday at a workout on the Missouri campus but he looks like the classic "tweener" – a guy who isn't big or strong enough to overpower NFL players and not fast enough to compensate for the lack of size/strength. If you're gonna be small, you have to be fast. If you're gonna be slow, you better have superhuman strength or size. "But he was the SEC Defensive Player of the Year!" Yes, he was. Tons of guys who are great college players flop in the NFL. Despite what whacko SEC fans might tell you, the SEC is not the NFL. The players are smaller and slower than even the least competent players Sam will face in the NFL.

So what NFL coaches are looking at in Sam is a guy who is going to bring a media circus with him (through no fault of his own) and has "Tries hard but just isn't good enough" written all over him. A step too slow, a bit too small, etc. Of course, the draft is always a crapshoot – Sam could become the best player in the NFL for all we know. However, the track record of players like Sam isn't great. My best guess is that Sam will be something like a 5th round pick, based on his on-field success at Missouri, for a team like the Bears or Saints that uses traditional ends in a 4-3 front. If he's drafted there (or later) we should avoid reading too much into it. No one can deny that he was a great college football player, but he's just not that exciting as an NFL prospect and that's all there is to it. The attitude and college production say Great Player while his overall athletic ability says Warm Body.

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22 Responses to “NPF: READING INTO”

  1. Dr. Mac Says:

    So who cares about Sam! What about Brandin Cooks???

  2. c u n d gulag Says:

    Yeah, I kind of feel the same way about him, Ed – a "tweener."

    Regardless, I wish him luck in pursuing his dream of becoming an NFL player.
    Even a star.

    And, "One never knows, do one?"

    But, I think he has other attributes he can fall back on, if his dream doesn't come through.

    It took guts to come out. And I admire his teammates for keeping their mouth's shut – which shows the respect they all have for him.

    So, whether he makes it in the NFL or not, star or not, I'm sure he'll be a successful leader, somewhere.

  3. Pat Says:

    Tim Tebow and Manti T'eo both just called and said … jesus, I'm sorry. I don't even have the heart to finish that.

  4. Dave Dell Says:

    In my opinion… For most of the all conference type players there's so much that depends on your supporting cast and your performances against weaker OL's to build your stats. That combined with a couple of drumbeat sportswriters and you'll have your glory days.

  5. J.D. Says:

    Not that it detracts from the point of the article, but since hiring Rob Ryan last year the Saints have used a hybrid 3-4 front. Maybe you meant the Bucs?

  6. Alan C Says:

    If he doesn't make it to the NFL based on his merits as a player, that's perfectly fine. I'm sure he can find something else worthwhile to do with his life (maybe after a couple years in the CFL). It would too bad if he went undrafted just because of the "controversy" he might bring with him.

  7. Rich Says:

    years ago I once worked with 2 guys who almost made the pros, in successive jobs. One was a football player who'd come out of a small college and was drafted and then cut by an NFL team. A really nice guy, very well put together as a person, but you didn't want to mention the name of the NFL team in his presence.

    The other guy was looked over and given some faint hope by the local NBA team. He wound up playing in the European leagues for different teams. He couldn't give up the dream and was obviously bitter.

    Sports is a crap shoot because what works in one level doesn't work in another the style of play in some conferences doesn't translate into the pros, and as you mention a lot of it is context. Plus some very promising people crap out after a couple seasons. Hopefully, Sams has a Plan B. he has a compelling story and a big personality–in a world that often runs on bullshit, he probably can take those gifts and make them work even better than his athletic talents.

  8. Robert Says:

    Thanks for the explanation, Ed. I know about as much about pro football as I do about ballroom dancing, but now I know a bit more. The fact that so many young men pin their hopes on playing in the NFL when they are not physically capable of doing so dismays me.

  9. TAGinMO Says:

    Good perspective, Ed. I don't think many people who have followed this story at least semi-closely since Sam came out will play the gay card if he's drafted in a late round.

    Nearly all of the pieces I saw in the immediate aftermath (and as a rabid Mizzou fan who also happens to be a big ol' homo, I pretty much devoured every story I could find) called Sam a "tweener" and made some mention of "mid- to late-round draft pick." His performance at the combine put a bit of a damper on even those middling expectations.

    No doubt, some people will blame it on Teh Ghey if he goes late. But those folks will basically just be proclaiming their ignorance of the subject-matter, rather than contributing anything useful to the debate.

  10. mothra Says:

    Well, I don't know much about football, but I bet Sam could get drafted by the Browns.

  11. bill Says:

    Ed, it's not too late to move to LA and give it a shot…

  12. Michael Says:

    Reads like a stupid question, but I am actually interested in your answer:

    Ever since the release of "Money Ball" the average sports fan has at least some knowledge about the power of statistics as a driving force behind evaluating athletes. If I recall correctly, the Australians took this concept to another level by defining the physical (and maybe mental?) attributes that make a world class swimmer and then went and found "bodies" that met the criteria AND THEN trained them to swim and the results were stunning.

    My question is this: Is there such a thing as the "heart" factor? The intangible "he/she has go 'it'" thing. And, if there is, is there a way to measure that? Do they, and if so, how do they?

    Intuitively I have seen it in sports and on the battlefield, some people just have "it" and the "it" makes up for the tangible things they lack. Just curious.

  13. Ed Says:

    Olympic-type events (track, swimming, gymnastics) are much more of a science than team sports. In football there are so many variables at play among the 22 guys on the field at any moment…I doubt it's possible to craft the Perfect Player in a lab like one could a swimmer. The backstroke is the backstroke, but in football a Cornerback is not a Cornerback. There are dozens of different schemes and systems in use; a player might excel in one and be a total failure in another.

    And yes, it's too late to move to LA. The market is saturated.

  14. Fearguth Says:

    A true Master of the Ephemeral you are, Gin & Tacos! And that's not bad!

  15. bill Says:

    Nothing to do with market, everything to do with balls.

    SPORTS JOKE!

    Seriously though, don't waste away in the Midwest forever… You're entertaining. You'd make a great entertainer. Can't do it from Assblast, Nebraska.

  16. sluggo Says:

    Anyone named "mike" "sam" should be a linebacker. Too bad he iis a small lineman.

  17. GoLions Says:

    Mel Kiper is still a schmuck FWIW.

  18. Scepticus Says:

    Off topic, but consistent with NPF:

    I recall reading a couple of years ago a post about your [Ed's] disappointment with Archer, which tangentially included an endorsement of Frisky Dingo. At the time I poked around the innernetz and could not find a way to watch Frisky Dingo, at least not for free.

    Adult Swim has just begun streaming many (all?) of its shows, including Frisky Dingo. Enjoy:

    http://video.adultswim.com/frisky-dingo/meet-killface.html

  19. Bitter Scribe Says:

    What's bad about this is all the gloating that homophobic assholes will do if he doesn't make it in the NFL.

  20. Heywood J. Says:

    Bingo on the whole "but he was the SEC Defensive Player of the Year!" stuff. So was Rolando McClain, who actually had good size and speed. College defenses (and offenses, for that matter) are pretty vanilla compared to NFL schemes, who rely heavily on "disguised" looks, line stunts, timed blitzes, and other features not used much in college.

    Good luck to Sam, he is breaking some real ground, but his supporters do need to brace themselves for the possibility that he may not set the NFL on fire.

  21. cromartie Says:

    At best, he's a Special Teamer in the mode of Brendon Ayanbadejo who was a servicable NFL linebacker at best though, and I remember this vividly, was an excellent CFL linebacker because his size/speed ratio was more suited for the CFL game. Sam may end up the same way.

  22. Myconfidentz Says:

    My go-to mock site (http://www.drafttek.com/2014-NFL-Mock-Draft-Round1.asp) has Sam going to Seattle w/the 6th pick of the Fifth Rd. I feel that's a skosh high. Intend to agree with Cromartie: Sam's best bet for NFL success is as a Special Teams ace/flexible JAG (just a guy)/warm body with the smarts to handle NFL scheme but not the raw tools to excel; kind of a poor man's Hunter Hillenmeyer. Also, I'll be a salty dog if the Bears take him.

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