The Missouri Tigers had two players from their front seven drafted in the first three rounds of the defense last year including Sheldon Richardson who went to the New York Jets in the first round with the 13th overall pick. The Tigers are a better team this year and that same front seven and especially their defensive line is a huge reason why with their ability to rush off of the edge with a player like Michael Sam. Sam was certainly not a bad player coming into this season, but he has been a breakout star for the Tigers this season and has been a force for them at their left end spot.
Sam’s game works on speed and making the opponent adjust to him as opposed to the other way around. His explosiveness off of the line is incredible and his top end speed makes him extremely dangerous. Combine that with a good use of leverage to maximize his power and knowing how to get low to bend around the edge and he is a terrific pure pass rusher. There are definitely questions with just how effective he can be as a run defender in the NFL, but he is going to be drafted to get after the passer. And in that respect, he is right around the top 100 pick mark with the possibility of firmly establishing himself as a day two pick.
Vitals & Build
Sam is listed at 6’2” 255lbs and looks the part of a linebacker playing defensive end. He has a lean build and just has incredible speed and explosion off of the line. Not only that, but he demonstrates good body control and agility to adjust on the move to make plays. Sam demonstrates decent strength when he gets his momentum going but he is not going to be an overpowering force when he is playing against opponents who have somewhere between 50-90lbs on him.
Sam actually lost some weight coming into this season and he might be in a delicate area in terms of his weight where adding weight could have a negative impact on his athleticism. He will still work to get stronger and more powerful, but 255lbs might be close to perfect in terms of maximizing what he brings to the table physically.
Snap Anticipation & First Step
Sam does a great job of getting off of the line when the ball is snapped and taking immediate advantage of the opponent. He looks like a sprinter lining up for the 100 meter dash with his head turned to see the football. The snap is like the firing of a starter pistol and he is off and going as fast as he can as soon as it does.
He operates out of a four point stance and gets extremely low to the ground with his butt in the air, so when he drives his legs, he goes forward as opposed to going up and ending up too tall. As a result, Sam has a tremendous first step which allows him to start creating momentum immediately and force the opponent to adjust and react to him.
When it comes to legitimately shedding blocks, Sam has problems. He does a great job of being able to play half the man and using his speed to put himself in great position and has an array of moves that allow him to finish an opponent that might not have great position to stop him. He will dip, rip, has occasionally even used a swim which is bizarre to watch given his height.
Sam runs into problems when the opponent is able to play square to him. In these situations, Sam can lose his momentum and be controlled by the opponent. He has an extremely difficult time getting out of these situations if he cannot simply run out of them. Sam’s go to in these situations and his counter move that can occasionally free him up is his spin move. He does not use a snap spin move, but a more gradual one that allows him to work out of the block with his feet moving up the field or towards his target. There are times when Sam has used this spin move to great effect and made plays with it, but the problem is Sam goes to it and keeps going to it.
The spin move is a great move, but in small doses. It is perhaps the easiest move to overuse and Sam runs into this problem. The more opponents see it, the more they can adjust to it and find ways to stop it. Much of the reason the spin move can be effective is that it is a surprise and tough to adjust to when the opponent is not expecting it. Sam needs to use his a lot less and find a different way to fight through blocks or he risks using it so much that no one is ever surprise and he cannot have much success with it.
Sam is effective at stopping the run by making the opponent try to adjust to him or creating opportunities for teammates. Because of his explosive speed off of the line, Sam can end up shooting gaps and ending up in the backfield ready to make plays. He will also end up sprinting off of the line outside and take himself out of the play, which is a risk Missouri is willing to take. The times he is able to get heel’s depth and adjust, he can occasionally make a big play on the ball carrier.
Sam does not have a ton of mass, so when the opponent is able to catch him or neutralize him, he has a tough time holding his ground and can either get pushed back or end up getting washed out of the play when it is between the tackles.
For Missouri, college football in general and the proliferation of the spread and teams that like to operate east and west, his ability to shoot up the field can cause huge problems and offensive linemen are desperately trying to shove him past the play and if they cannot, he can make the play, but even when they do, it can open up a hole for one of his teammates to fill and make the stop.
Sam is going to have a difficult time being a terrific run defender as an inline defender. He might have far more success if he is playing as an outside linebacker where he has more room to operate and can generate speed before opponents can reach him for blocks. It remains to be seen if he would be a great run defender in that situation, but he would be operating from an easier position to make an impact and really allow him to show off his impressive range.
This is where Sam really stands out and when opponents are in obvious passing situations, he can be an absolute terror. For the most part, Sam and the Tigers treat every play like a potential passing situation with both of their ends looking to attack up the field, but that is less likely in the NFL.
This is a track meet for Sam and every play is a heat for him to explode off of the line, read the play while he attacks up field and make the adjustment as he sees fit. Sam is at his most comfortable attacking to the outside and can just outrun opponents to the edge and flatten to the quarterback with incredible efficiency. He likes to use a dip move to accomplish this but he will also use a rip move to get under the arms of his blocker and create space to bend inside.
What makes Sam so effective and such a terrifying pass rusher is his willingness to attack inside and the way he does it. Sam has two main approaches to attacking inside and getting inside the C gap. First, he can just go straight at it and hit the hole as quickly as he can, potentially catching an opponent before they are able to get out of their stance. The second method is Sam will take a step or few up the field, plant his outside foot in the ground and make a great cut to get inside the C gap. And with the way opponents are often sprawling to get outside and block him, Sam has found huge holes between the tackle and guard.
Sam is not afraid to use it and he uses it just enough where it keeps opponents honest that allow him to keep doing what he does best, which is attacking up the field around the edge. His inside rush attacks tend to work as a changeup and have been extremely effective in allowing him to make plays while making sure the opponent has to respect it and play him straight up or risk getting his quarterback drilled right up the middle. Sam has shown the ability to really make quick adjustments and break down in the backfield and make plays, but will occasionally end up out of control and miss the tackle in the backfield.
One additional wrinkle that Missouri has used with Sam is having him play in a three man front basically as a 4-tech end head up on the opposing tackle either with an extra linebacker next to him or just having a three man rush with Sam on the left side. Because of his quickness and how difficult it can be for linemen to get their hands on Sam, he has been able to shoot gaps and get pressure from this spot.
The issue for Sam is what happens when opponents are able to block him. He loves to use the spin move and that is a great counter move for him, but goes too that well too often and can diminish its effectiveness. He wins by keeping the opponent off balance and working half the man, so he needs to work to improve his ability to take on the blocker straight up when the opponent is able to get out and block him.
Sam’s best fit is probably in the 4-3 because he is so effective out of his stance and just how explosive he is off the snap, but there are definitely going to be teams running a 3-4 or who employ a leo backer that will give him a long look. His athleticism is impressive, he has tremendous explosiveness and range, so there are teams that will certainly look at him and want to put him out in space to take further advantage. The question is how effectively he can be as a standup rusher and how explosive can he be from that position. The good news is that should a team that runs a leo backer take him with that position in mind, he could move to right end if they do not like what he does as a linebacker.
Initially, it would not be a surprise if Sam is used as a situational pass rusher that could potentially work himself into a starting role. He could make a huge impact right from the get go even as a pass rush specialist that can be a great athlete on special teams. Potentially paired with a defensive lineman in there to stop the run, Sam could be deadly coming in fresh to sprint after the quarterback.
The player that Sam most resembles is Robert Mathis of the Indianapolis Colts. They are both undersized left ends who thrive on their explosive ability and speed to get around the edge and pressure the quarterback. Mathis is actually about 10lbs lighter than Sam. This does not mean that Sam is going to be Robert Mathis, but the type of game he plays is extremely similar to the style of game Mathis plays. Before they switched to the 3-4, the Colts had Mathis and Dwight Freeney operate in their 4-3 much the same as Missouri does with theirs ends.
Michael Sam is used almost in a one-dimensional role where he is always attacking up the field and if he can make a play on the run on his way to the quarterback, then it becomes an added bonus. Ultimately, with Missouri now or in the NFL, Sam is brought in to get after the quarterback. While he cannot be an absolute sieve against the run, bringing in a player like Sam is for pressuring the quarterback. Initially, Sam might be used as a situational pass rusher and if he can prove to be a viable starting player, then he becomes that much more valuable. As a result, Sam projects as a fringe top 100 player that could really boost his stock in workouts with his explosiveness and going to an All-Star game where he can put on a show in the pit. If he does those things, he ends up solidifying himself as a second day pick.
Some of the film used for this scouting breakdown was provided by the good folks at draftbreakdown.com