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.