Drafting Michael Sam makes a lot of sense for the New England Patriots.
The Patriots reportedly are one of six teams that have shown the most interest in Sam since February’s NFL Scouting Combine, where the former Missouri defensive end’s workout was a trainwreck. Sam ran a 4.91-second 40-yard dash and a 7.80-second three-cone drill and measured just 26.5 inches in the vertical leap and 9-foot-6 in the broad jump.
The first openly gay draft prospect saw his numbers improve at his March pro day — which the Patriots attended — running the 40-yard dash in 4.69 seconds and jumping 30 inches in the vertical leap.
Sam had plenty of production in college, which helped him win the SEC’s Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2013 after he recorded 11.5 sacks and 19 tackles for loss. That could make Sam, who’s projected as a seventh-round pick, a perfect low-risk prospect for the Patriots late in the 2014 NFL draft.
They need pass-rush depth
The Patriots have only Michael Buchanan, who was benched as a rookie for Andre Carter in 2013, and Jake Bequette, who has just 43 career snaps in two seasons, behind starting defensive ends Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich. The Patriots still could sign free-agent defensive end Will Smith, and Jamie Collins could swap between linebacker and defensive end in his second season, but it’s clear the Patriots need to find some bodies at defensive end before minicamp breaks in June.
Sam has been criticized for being rigid at defensive end, without much bend off the edge, but he showed a high motor with production to spare in college.
They’ve had success with tweener edge defenders
Sam struggled in linebacker drills at the 2014 Senior Bowl and didn’t show tremendous agility at the combine, but the Patriots have successfully converted college defensive ends to 3-4 outside linebackers who can occasionally drop into coverage. Ninkovich, Tully Banta-Cain, Mike Vrabel, Rosevelt Colvin and Adalius Thomas all were better athletes than Sam, but they also made a successful transition from defensive end to linebacker under Bill Belichick.
Many assume Sam can’t make that transition because of his lack of agility, but if any coach would attempt the conversion, it’s Belichick.
They have the right environment
Many assumed Sam would need to enter a strong locker room in the NFL after announcing before the combine that he’s gay. Veteran leaders such as defensive tackle Vince Wilfork, quarterback Tom Brady, linebacker Jerod Mayo and Ninkovich preside over a Patriots locker room that is filled with smart, young, well-liked players like safety Devin McCourty, linebacker Dont’a Hightower and defensive end Chandler Jones.
From my time spent in the locker room during media availability, it seems like an accepting group that gets along well. Jones took many rookies under his wing in 2013 — just his second year in the league — and he could be the perfect player to make Sam feel welcome.