We took a deep dive Wednesday morning into Ja’Whaun Bentley’s college film to see what the former Purdue linebacker can bring to the New England Patriots.
Now, we’re doing the same for the other linebacker the Patriots selected in the 2018 NFL Draft: Arizona State’s Christian Sam.
Sam, a sixth-round pick (178th overall), was the Pac-12’s leading tackler last season, racking up 127 (including 9 1/2 for loss and three sacks) as a redshirt junior. He was similarly productive as a sophomore in 2015 (96 tackles, 6 1/2 for loss, three sacks) before missing nearly the entire 2016 season with an ankle injury. He chose to forgo his final year of eligibility to enter the draft, in part because he already had earned his diploma.
The Sun Devils primarily used Sam as an inside linebacker, though he did see snaps as an off-the-line outside ‘backer and an edge rusher, as well. The Patriots view him as a weakside linebacker at the NFL level, according to director of player personnel Nick Caserio.
What does Sam do well? For starters, he’s a very good run defender.
In addition to his high tackle count, Sam’s run stop percentage of 12.6 percent last season, as tabulated by Pro Football Focus, ranked seventh among all draft-eligible linebackers, one spot behind eighth overall pick Roquan Smith. (Bentley also ranked highly in that metric, posting the fourth-best mark.)
Watch him shoot into the backfield and hit this Colorado running back in the backfield on fourth-and-1:
Or this one, where he sheds a block and stops a Washington back short of a first down on third-and-5:
There also were plays, however, where Sam appeared to make the wrong read and found himself out of position — a problem Patriots linebacker Elandon Roberts has had over the last two seasons. Sam, who stands 6-foot-1, 244 pounds, is a decent athlete — he was fast enough to chase down Oregon running back Taj Griffin on a jet sweep — but seemed to lack the lateral quickness and/or consistent effort to correct some of these mistakes.
Missed tackles also were a bit of an issue for the young linebacker. He whiffed on 13 tackles last season, per PFF.
From a pass coverage standpoint, Sam, a former high school defensive back, is more advanced than Bentley, who came off the field in some obvious passing situations last season. He’s capable of tracking running backs out of the backfield and showed good instincts in zone coverage near the line of scrimmage.
He’s probably not someone the Patriots want covering deep downfield, though.
It will be interesting to see how often New England asks Sam to rush the passer. He didn’t do so often (or particularly effectively) at Arizona State, tallying just seven total pressures on 53 pass-rush snaps in 2017, per PFF. He was more disruptive when blitzing up the middle than he was coming off the edge.
As a sixth-round pick, Sam won’t be guaranteed a place on the roster this summer, and he, Bentley and Roberts could be battling for just two spots. He has the potential to develop into a versatile three-down linebacker, though, and his ability to play on special teams — which he did throughout his college career — will help his case.