Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Michael Sam and “Tweeners”

By Brad Oremland

In 2013, Missouri defensive end Michael Sam led the SEC in sacks (11.5) and in tackles for a loss (19). He was named first-team all-SEC, SEC Co-Defensive Player of the Year, and first-team All-American. Despite his success in the country's most competitive college football conference, Sam was seen as an early-to-mid-round NFL draft pick, because he might be small for a defensive end and slow for a linebacker.

Michael Sam is gay. He came out to his Mizzou teammates in August 2013, without incident, and in early February of this year, Sam publicly revealed that he was gay. A few people around the league made public statements supporting Sam, but a number of front office men made anonymous and off-the-record remarks that Sam's draft stock would suffer. Despite strong and rapidly growing support for gay rights, people began to wonder if Sam might not even get drafted.

On Saturday, the St. Louis Rams drafted Michael Sam late in the 7th and final round of the 2014 NFL draft. He was chosen 249th overall. Forty-four defensive ends and outside linebackers were drafted before Sam. He was the 19th defensive player from the SEC to be drafted. Eight DEs and OLBs from the SEC were taken before Sam.

Football analysts have three potential explanations for Sam's low draft position:

1. Sam is a tweener, too small to play defensive end and too slow to play linebacker.

2. He did not perform well at the NFL Draft Combine. Sam ran a 4.91 40-yard dash, bench-pressed 225 pounds just 17 times, and showed an underwhelming 25½-inch vertical jump.

3. Homophobia.

Spoiler: the third answer is the real one. But let's look at the first two.

1. Sam is a tweener

At face value, this is true: Sam is a tweener, and it's not clear whether his pro position is DE or OLB. The idea that this dropped him to the late 7th round of the draft, though, is absurd.

What makes a tweener? Size, strength, and speed. We could measure this through height, weight, body mass index (BMI), and maybe 40 time or bench press. Let's start with a really simple measure: weight. NFL defensive ends usually weigh somewhere in the high 200s, occasionally the low 300s. Michael Sam is listed at 6'2" and 261 lbs. In last week's draft, teams selected 23 players listed at NFL.com as defensive ends, including Sam. Their average weight was 270.3 pounds. Sam could catch up with a big lunch.

The most obvious comparison is to Sam's college teammate Kony Ealy. At Missouri's pro day in March, Ealy measured the same size as Michael Sam.

Chart

That is basically equal. They ran the same 40-yard dash time (4.69 for Ealy, 4.71 for Sam), and Ealy's vertical jump was a little better (32") than Sam's (30"). Ealy, the less accomplished of the two in college, was drafted in the 2nd round. It's hard to see anything in the numbers that would push Ealy so far ahead of his teammate. Sam had one of the best 2013 seasons by any player in the NCAA. If NFL teams weren't attracted to that success simply because of his size, why was Sam drafted after:

Chart

Sam's size numbers are in line with all of these players, and all of them were selected before him. That includes his Mizzou teammate Ealy, who was chosen 189 spots before Sam. Eight players, all of whom play the same position, all between 73-76 inches tall, 250-275 pounds, BMI within two points of Sam's. If Michael Sam is a tweener, so are most or all of the others.

Of course, many analysts project Sam as an outside linebacker in the NFL, so maybe we're comparing him with the wrong players. Among the 24 OLBs drafted this year, we find an average size of 6-2½, 242 pounds, 30.8 BMI. Sam is almost exactly the right height, but he's heavier than most of these guys. Again, I'm not denying that he's a tweener. There are fewer comparisons for Sam here:

Chart

Sam is the heaviest player listed, but not by a lot. Plenty of guys the same size as him were early draft picks. To be fair, these players may have an easier transition, since they already played linebacker in college, but that's teachable, and no one has accused Sam of being lazy, stupid, or uncoachable. Size alone simply isn't an adequate explanation for Sam's tumble down NFL draft boards.

2. Sam made a poor showing at the NFL Combine

Like the tweener point, this is absolutely true. Sam's performance at the Combine was miserable. He ran a 4.91 40, benched only 17 reps, barely left the ground on his vertical jump (25½"), and was slow in the 3-cone drill (7.8 seconds). Every drill he did, he did badly.

Unquestionably, the Combine hurt Sam's draft position. Teams that might have been interested if Sam had run a 4.7 with a 30-inch vertical weren't nearly as interested in the player they saw in Indianapolis. But Combine performance is always tempered by a player's showing at his pro day, and all 32 NFL teams were represented at Missouri's pro day in March, where Sam did run a 4.7, with a 30-inch vertical.

A player's showing in his workouts for scouts matters, and the NFL Combine matters most. But there are decades of evidence that there's a limit to these things. Thirty years ago, Jerry Rice slipped to the middle of the first round based partly on his slow 40-yard dash (4.69). Rice is the NFL's all-time leader in 40-yard TDs (59).

Once again, Kony Ealy provides an interesting comparison with Sam. Ealy's 40-time at the Combine was the same as Sam's, actually a tick slower (4.92). His bench press was better (22), while his 3-cone (6.83) and vertical leap (31") were much better. But at Mizzou's pro day, their numbers were similar. They ran equal 40 times (4.7) with similar verticals (32" for Ealy, 30" for Sam), and Sam improved his bench press (19 reps; Ealy didn't lift on pro day). Ealy's numbers are better, clearly. But they're not a lot better, not the difference between 2nd round and 7th round, especially considering their on-field performances with the Tigers.

3. Homophobia

On February 8th, Michael Sam was a second-day draft pick, probably a 3rd-rounder. A week later, after he came out, Sam was a third-day pick, probably somewhere between the 4th and 6th rounds.

The tweener issue did affect Sam's draft stock, and so did his poor workout at the Combine. But the biggest factor in his slide — the slide of the best player on the 2013 Missouri Tigers, a team that played in the SEC Championship Game, won the Cotton Bowl, and finished the season ranked 5th in the nation — the biggest factor in the slide of the SEC sack leader and Co-Defensive Player of the Year (with 1st-round draft pick C.J. Mosley), the slide of a consensus All-American, the biggest factor in the slide of Michael Sam's draft stock was his sexuality.

The other factors, size and workout stats, are insufficient to explain the lack of enthusiasm for such a successful player. There are two types of homophobia that affected Sam. One is plain old "I-hate-gay-people" homophobia. NFL front offices are full of old men with outdated ideas, who prefer to hire people they're comfortable with, and convince themselves afterwards that they really chose the most qualified candidate. This has been obvious for years in the difficulties of African-American head coaching candidates, a problem so obvious and ugly that it necessitated the Rooney Rule. More than half of all interim head coaches are black, so there are obviously qualified minority coaching candidates. But under 20% of long-term hires are black. Unconscious bias, conscious discrimination, or inequities in the interview and hiring process deprive African-Americans of head coaching opportunities. It's logical to presume that the same prejudice that hurts racial minorities will affect openly gay ballplayers. It was reported at the 2013 NFL Combine that at least one team asked a prospect, "Do you like girls?"

There's another factor, though, besides direct bigotry: perceived homophobia. I'm confident that some teams were interested in drafting Sam, but concerned about the publicity that would accompany adding the league's first out-of-the-closet player. These teams worried about public reaction, from fans, media, and opponents. They worried about private reaction from other players and team personnel. This is a less hateful, but equally cowardly homophobia: I'm not prejudiced, but I'm sure everyone else is. Support for LGBT rights has grown enormously, just in the last decade, and it continues to increase quickly — already, Michael Sam jerseys are the second-best-selling among rookies, behind only Johnny Manziel — but some NFL decision-makers don't know (or don't want to know) this.

Michael Sam was drafted late in the 7th round, 249th overall. Forty-four defensive ends and outside linebackers were drafted before Sam, a consensus All-American. Eighteen SEC defensive players were drafted before Sam, the conference's Co-Defensive Player of the Year. Sam was eventually drafted by the St. Louis Rams, where he'll continue to enjoy the support of Missouri fans, and there's no pressure for him to produce right away, because St. Louis already has an exceptional defensive line. But his low draft position implies ugly things about the NFL and the men who guide it. Michael Sam should be fine for now. It's the rest of us I'm worried about.

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