One of the biggest football storylines this offseason has been and will continue to be the story of Michael Sam, the defensive end prospect out of the University of Missouri who announced last month that he is openly gay. If and when he makes a team this September, he will become the first openly gay player to play in the NFL. (Prior to joining iSportsWeb, I interviewed Howard Bragman, the public relations practitioner in charge of the media rollout of Sam’s announcement. Click here to read that piece.)
Many, many people want to see the young man succeed, but now it’s a football matter – a matter of which teams would realistically draft him. I’m here to tell you that Michael Sam is a good fit for the New York Jets.
Draft pundits expect Sam to be a mid-round pick, anywhere from the third to the fifth round. At least, that’s what they were saying before the Scouting Combine last week. Sam had a disappointing showing in Indianapolis: an official 40-yard dash time of 4.91 seconds, 17 bench reps and a 25.5” vertical jump. Now some are unsure Sam will be drafted at all.
Whatever baggage may or may not come with being an openly gay player, the real reason Sam won’t be a high pick is because he is what everyone likes to call a “tweener.” At 6’2, 261 pounds, he’s stuck between two positions – too small to be a defensive end at the professional level, but too big to play linebacker. The best bet for Sam to catch on with an NFL team is to lose some weight and play outside linebacker for a 3-4 defense, where his main duty will be to rush the quarterback. Pass rushing is Sam’s greatest strength, while he is mediocre at both run-stuffing and pass coverage. Now, no team is drafting an automatic starter in the fourth or fifth round; linebackers drafted in those rounds are for depth, or are project players like Sam.
The Jets have played a 3-4 defense since Eric Mangini was hired as head coach in 2006. Last year, they successfully converted former end Quinton Coples into an OLB, where he and Calvin Pace started last season. But Pace is a free agent and it’s unclear whether the Jets will re-sign him. Same with reserve OLB Garrett McIntyre. The only other back-up outside linebackers currently on the roster are Antwan Barnes, Jermaine Cunningham and practice squad member Tim Fugger.
It’s clear the Jets need to draft a pass rusher to develop in the long term, while rotating him in for a few passing plays a game in the meantime. WalterFootball.com’s post-Combine mock draft projects the Jets drafting BYU OLB Kyle Van Noy in the second round. But their need is not that great. New York is hurting far worse at wide receiver, tight end, safety and guard, all of which need to be addressed in the first three or four rounds.
So the Jets need a 3-4 OLB in the fourth or fifth round of May’s NFL Draft. Michael Sam has the size and skill set to become a 3-4 OLB in the pros, who is projected to be worth a fourth- or fifth-round pick. The last thing standing in the way is the big distraction: The Media Circus.
Last year, Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o was projected to be a top-ten pick before ultimately being taken by the San Diego Chargers at number 38 overall. Parallel to the Michael Sam story, two things happened to Te’o between January and the draft: A scandal erupted over a facet of his personal life, and his weak Combine performance hurt his draft stock for football reasons. Then, Te’o started his rookie season, had a quietly productive year and was never dragged back into the spotlight again. Everyone’s questions about Te’o – “Will he be able to handle the jokes and jokers in the locker room? What will his teammates think about playing with him?” – seem to be similar to those about Sam. It’s fair to consider the “New York Media Factor” in this case, but as historic as Sam’s entrance into the National Football League will be, the Jets handled far more with Tebowmania than they would if they draft Sam.
Remember that Michael Sam was the SEC Co-Defensive Player of the Year in 2013. Despite poor Combine numbers, Sam is worth a mid-round pick. If he’s available to the Jets in the fourth round, I’d think about it. If he’s there in the fifth round, I’d jump on it.
News and Notes: The Jets placed their franchise tag on kicker Nick Folk last Friday. The man whom Rex Ryan proclaimed to be the team’s “Folk Hero” last season is coming off a career year, where he made 91.7 percent of his field goals, including three game-winners. The value of this year’s franchise tag for kickers is $3.566 million.
~Michael Vick is set to hit free agency again, and his Philadelphia Eagles should be happy moving forward with Nick Foles as their starting quarterback. It’s unclear whether the Eagles will try to re-sign Vick, but reports indicate the Jets are interested in Vick’s services. Vick is familiar with Jets offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg, who was Vick’s OC in Philadelphia from 2009-2012.
~While Vick may become a Jet, his current Eagles teammate Jeremy Maclin will not. The wide receiver, who spent the 2013 season on the disabled list with a torn ACL, signed a one-year deal with Philly last Friday. The Jets were reportedly interested in pursuing Maclin if he were to hit free agency.