Michael Sam was the SEC co-defensive player of the year in 2013, and ended the season by setting Gus Johnson ablaze with a huge play in the Cotton Bowl to clinch the victory over Oklahoma State. He was a joy to watch this year, and was hard working and productive on the football field.
He is also considered a “tweener” and undersized for a 4-3 defensive end. College football is full of guys who were stars at that level, but became just another guy in the NFL. An award-winning history does not always translate to professional football (often, though, at the quarterback or other “skill” positions where they get credit for playing with great teammates). The productivity vs. measurables debate happens every year; it will become a focus and code in the discussion of Michael Sam, after he came out as the first openly gay player to (likely) play professional football.
Even before the announcement, the prevailing thought was that most teams knew. He had told his teammates before last season began, and was generally accepted by them. It was not a closely held secret, and scouts were talking. His draft status has been generally put in the 3rd to 5th round range (and has been adjusted already by some like CBS).
At the start of this past season, I questioned the emerging narrative that Kerry Rhodes was being blacklisted because of internet rumors that he was gay. Even before those rumors, teams consistently went a different direction and signed other safeties in free agency, as the rumors did not begin until free agency was almost done. The case for a broad blacklisting across the league was questionable.
This does not mean I am so naive as to think that is not a factor for any team. We have seen the anonymous quotes attributed to general managers that range from concerning to infuriating, and the latter would be referring to this from Peter King’s Monday Morning Quarterback.
“We talked about it this week,” the GM said. “First of all, we don’t think he’s a very good player. The reality is he’s an overrated football player in our estimation. Second: He’s going to have expectations about where he should be drafted, and I think he’ll be disappointed. He’s not going to get drafted where he thinks he should. The question you will ask yourself, knowing your team, is, ‘How will drafting him affect your locker room?’ And I am sorry to say where we are at this point in time, I think it’s going to affect most locker rooms. A lot of guys will be uncomfortable. Ten years from now, fine. But today, I think being openly gay is a factor in the locker room.”
Not good, overrated, on and on. Sam is a true indicator in a sense that the Rhodes rumors were not, because of the timing and the nature of the announcement. Sam will be cheap, on his rookie deal, and available to everyone at the outset.
To get some sense of the range of outcomes for the “productive” players who won their major conference Defensive Player of the Year awards, I looked back at the last decade in the SEC, ACC, Big Ten, Big XII, and Pac-10/12. In the SEC, only one player who won the award was selected outside the top 33 picks in the draft–Chad Lavalais of LSU (who won the award in 2003) in the fifth round (pick #148 overall). When we look at all five conferences, here are the results (right).
Of the 54 players, almost three-fourths were selected in the first two rounds of the draft (74.1%). Only three players lasted past the sixth round–all undrafted, and all three were middle linebackers/leaders of defenses. One of those was Mark Herzlich, who dealt with cancer and made a valiant comeback after sitting out an entire season, after winning the award in 2008.
Here is the list of the ten guys who were selected as a major conference Defensive Player of the Year over the last decade, who were drafted lowest.
Bovada has set an over/under on Michael Sam’s draft position at 125.5. If he goes over, that would put him in this company already. If he were to go undrafted, he would join a small list of players, and raise plenty of questions for the entire league.
Michael Sam, like most other NFL prospects, may never make a huge impact on the field as a top line starter in the league. From the 1997 to 2006 drafts, only 6% of fourth round picks ever made a Pro Bowl, and only 28% started three or more seasons. By the sixth round, those numbers drop to 4% and 14%, respectively. If people question Sam’s ability to translate to the NFL, well, that is in line with most other players being drafted in rounds 3 to 5. If he lasts beyond that, then you have to be a strong believer in statistically rare coincidences.