Unless you have been living under a rock, you will almost certainly have heard the big NFL news—Michael Sam, star Mizzou defensive end has come out as gay. When Sam is drafted, he will become the first openly gay player to play in the NFL. In doing so, he showed bravery, knowing he will face prejudice, ridicule and added scrutiny, from fans, media and even his peers. More than that, he also knew that his draft stock, and therefore earning potential, would also plummet. How far the Michael Sam draft stock has fallen, however, has taken most by surprise.
Coming out of college, Sam was a stud. In 2013, Sam led the SEC—the most prestigious division in college football—in sacks (10.5) and tackles for loss (18.0) as a defensive end. He was top 10 in both categories nationally, and was named SEC defensive player of the year.
These stats alone were enough for Sam to consider himself a top 35 pick. After all, only one SEC defensive player of the year has ever been selected outside of the top two rounds.
Sure, some would express concern that Sam is considered to be a “tweener” a player that is undersized for a defensive end, his college position, but inexperienced at linebacker, the position he will likely be asked to play in the NFL, and this had already hurt his value. A difficult time at the Senior Bowl had already seen some projecting him into the third round, but within days of his announcement, it quickly became clear that even this could be an overestimation.
In the days that followed Sam’s announcement, sources inside many teams front offices noted that they moved Sam down their draft boards. None would admit it, of course, but many of those were doing so as much because of his announcement as because of his poor performance at the senior bowl.
The simple fact is, that many teams simply do not want the exposure that will inevitably come with carrying Sam in their lineup, and those that are willing to put up with this will do so knowing that there will be fewer teams willing to take a chance on him, and they can afford to wait until later in the draft. Most of the significant draft experts now view Sam no better than a late fourth or early fifth round pick.
Michael Sam’s draft stock may climb following a good combine, but even still, it will never climb as high as it may have done without the announcement.
We saw a similar thing with Tyrann Mathieu in 2013. No team would acknowledge that his drug issues were to blame—they called him undersized, unpolished and overrated—but numerous teams removed him from their draft board entirely because they didn’t want the added scrutiny that came with carrying a player like that on their roster.
In the end, the Arizona Cardinals took a chance on Mathieu, and ended up with one of the steals of the draft.
I fully expect the same to happen with Sam. I do not believe Sam will struggle as a 4-3 defensive end, if a team choose to play him at that position, in spite of his size. I do not think he will have any issues transitioning to a 3-4 outside linebacker either, if a team chooses to go that way with him either. Moreover, like Mathieu, he could legitimately play multiple positions, and provide great flexibility for a team which desires to use multiple different defensive looks.
If Sam’s draft stock does fall as expected, and he is not taken until the fourth or fifth round, Sam could prove to be one of the steals of the draft, for any team willing to give him a try. We wait and see what the future holds for the first openly gay athlete in the NFL.