Much has been and will be written about the societal ramifications of Michael Sam’s announcement, and with good reason. This post is dedicated, however, to Michael Sam’s ability to play the game of football and looking at how his game will translate to the NFL.
Many draftniks have knocked Michael Sam’s size as a reason for why he will or should be a fourth or fifth round pick. Sam is absolutely not ideal sized for a 4-3 defensive end. However, he makes up for his size with sound technique, great positioning and sneaky strength.
Let’s look at a few plays that show the things Michael Sam does very well.
Sam is extremely quick off the edge and it causes a lot of problems for opposing offensive tackles.
On this play against South Carolina, he is attempting a speed rush against the right tackle. This screenshot is taken right after the snap. As you can see, Sam is already making his move outside before the right tackle is even really out of his pre-snap stance.
At this point, Sam already beat the right tackle upfield. The right tackle is still making his full drop and so he doesn’t have his feet set to give him a solid base. Sam’s quickness gives him an additional advantage: he has his arms out already anticipating engaging with the tackle while the tackle has to use his arms to complete his drop back.
So, when Sam does engage with the right tackle, he has a huge leverage advantage. Sam is able to extend his arms to keep his body away from the right tackle and has a strength advantage because the tackle’s footwork has not been able to catch up. His feet aren’t wide enough to provide a base to maximize his strength. At this point, Sam is in position to do whatever he wants.
Sam decides to continue his outside move. Because he had such terrific leverage, Sam is able to disengage with his right arm and shoulder and use his free arm to make a nice swim move past the right tackle.
At that point, Sam has a free path to the quarterback. On this play, his quick swim move allowed him to get to the quarterback very fast. The quarterback rushed his throw and nearly threw an interception.
Inside Pass Rush
Because Sam’s speed rush is so effective, opposing offensive tackles often cheat quite a bit to get deeper in the pocket faster. When tackles cheat too much, Sam hits them with an inside swim move that is very effective despite his size.
Here, Michael Sam is isolated against the South Carolina right tackle. It’s an obvious passing formation, so Sam is pinning his ears back and going hard at the quarterback.
The right tackle had been cheating outside for several plays in a row so Sam is thinking inside move here all the way. Like the previous plays, the right tackle immediately cheats toward the outside pass rush. You can see this in how far his right leg is extended. If he is guarding against the inside rush as well, his stride would be far shorter to maintain his balance inside.
Sam recognizes it immediately, plants his outside foot quickly and makes his move inside.
And the right tackle can’t recover nearly in time. Sam got leverage early and at this point, where he’s about to break through the line, he has a massive leverage advantage.
As a result of that leverage, Sam breaks through the line cleanly. Coming free right up the middle, the South Carolina quarterback easily sees Sam and is unable to step into his throw. The pass has no chance at being completed.
Sam is also much better in the run game than is credited him. He rarely gets moved much and he uses his quick inside move to his advantage in the run game as well.
Here, South Carolina is giving the right tackle help to block Sam on a run play. The right tackle is much bigger than Sam. So, with outside help, Sam really shouldn’t be a factor in this play.
Sam gets a much better break off the ball than the right tackle. He knows right away that he has a good chance to get inside of him and get upfield.
He beats the right tackle to the inside spot and hits him with a swim move. Again, he has a huge advantage in terms of leverage.
His swim move is effective and he cleanly beats the right tackle inside once again. You can see the tight end on the ground. Sam’s inside move has rendered the tight end useless and forced him to dive to try to help the right tackle.
So, Sam has a free path to the running back. Even if he doesn’t make the tackle here, taking the tight end out of the play leaves a linebacker unblocked to clean things up. This is a pretty great play by Sam. Not only does he make the play, he takes up blockers to make the linebackers’ plays easier like you would expect from a DT (not an undersized DE).
Another area where you would expect an undersized defensive end to struggle is when he stunts inside. An undersized defensive end is going to be less effective in taking up offensive linemen to free up the outside rusher.
This is a pretty standard 4-3 look and the passing formation is going to allow Missouri’s defensive linemen to really focus on a pass rush.
To try to get a pass rusher free, Missouri calls a stunt. Sam does a good job initially forcing a double team of the right tackle and right guard.
Here you can see Sam is still engaged with both linemen and a defensive tackle is allowed to run free. You can also see the right tackle notice the free pass rusher. This is where the right tackle should disengage to take on the outside pass rusher.
But, Sam continues to engage the right tackle and he can’t get free. The outside pass rusher now has a clear path to the quarterback as a result of Sam forcing the double team.
Michael Sam is pretty much always in the position he is supposed to be. He rarely runs himself too far upfield (and consequently out of the play) and he holds contain remarkably well. The Georgia game has numerous plays where Sam is left unblocked on zone read type plays. Every time, he recognizes it immediately, holds contain and forces an immediate hand off.
Michael Sam is still undoubtedly undersized. The place it really shows up is in his bull rush. Sam’s bull rush is very ineffective, and his size is no doubt a big factor. But, he mitigates his size issues with sound technique and a quick inside move. His size will hurt him more in the NFL against larger offensive linemen, but his great technique will always help improve his effectiveness.
While he is often projected in the middle rounds because of his size, I think Michael Sam is a great football player that can overcome his size issues. With ideal size, he would be a mid first round pick. Without it, he is more of a second round prospect. I would not ever let him get past the third round.
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