The annual NFL draft kicks off on Thursday, and everyone is wondering who is going to pick up Michael Sam, the defensive end from Missouri who is looking to be the first openly gay pro football player to play in the league.
Sam's draft stock has been affected, some speculate, since coming out in February. Others will say it is because of his so-so performance at the NFL Combine, which was slightly mitigated by his improved display at Missouri's Pro Day in March.
Still, if he is indeed drafted, the SEC Defensive Player of the Year will likely be a late-round pick. Currently, different media speculators put Sam at the middle of the pack, and many point out Sam's size, calling him a "tweener." At 6'2" and 261 pounds, he's on the shorter end of guys in his position but about average weight. He is considered too small to be a defensive end on the NFL's terms, and not experienced enough to be an outside linebacker (but he is making attempts at becoming a more versatile player). Interestingly, there are defensive players who are the same height or weigh less than he does who are ranked higher. There are others who are taller and weigh more, who are ranked lower than he is.
According to SB Nation, there are 25 defensive ends in contention, and Sam is currently ranked right in the middle. In fact, Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight sees Sam having a 50-50 shot at being drafted, a draft rate that is five percentage points better than other tweeners in recent history.
But in addition to size, this process is about talent, skill, and the ability to fit in on a team. Nonetheless, there are a handful of franchises that are looking at Sam, and a few others that actually need him.
New York Jets
Jets head coach Rex Ryan is all about tactical defense, and Sam could be the right guy for this team, on a mechanic level. And in New York, the city that is headquarters to the media industry, they've already got an openly gay professional athlete — Jason Collins of the Brooklyn Nets. Though we're sure the Post will have a field day with headlines, New York's sports media is no stranger to gay athletes now.
For now, Ryan says his team is already quite diverse, so Sam should fit in just fine.
"One thing I know for sure: We have 53 different players," he said to ESPN. "They're all different — different religious beliefs, what they look like, height, weight, married, single… The main thing we talk about is respect in our locker room."
And, as Manish Mehta of the Daily News points out, general manager John Idzik has been playing it safe for the last year and a half with trades and moves. With 12 choices this week the Jets could, so to speak, make a big play.
Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff has said that the attention toward Sam should not be viewed as a distraction to the team.
"This is an individual who’s being evaluated as a football player, first and foremost," Dimitroff said in February. "And like any organization, (teams will) evaluate the player as a player, and then as a character and a soul. Then, obviously, the way that he’s going to project in the NFL. That’s what it’s about.”
On top of that, USA Today's Nate Davis speculates that it's time for the Falcons to replenish their pass-rushers. Sam would be especially skilled to help in that way.
It's worth noting that Atlanta is a thriving southern city for LGBT people, but the state of Georgia still isn't exactly a mecca for gay people, with very few legal protections in the case of discrimination, let alone marriage rights.
Green Bay Packers
At Missouri's Pro Day, Green Bay was the other team that showed interest in Sam, along with the Cleveland Browns. And for good reason — Green Bay could use an outside linebacker, or defensive end.
Right after Sam came out, Chris Kluwe, the former Minnesota Vikings punter and LGBT ally, said this would be the best team for Sam. Most importantly, however, both general manager Ted Thompson and coach Mike McCarthy said the Packers have room for any player that works right for them.
“I think you definitely have to feel he’s a courageous young man, but my understanding is that he’s a talented player,” McCarthy told reporters in February. “We’ve always, from day one, talked about our program and about our culture. Ted and [the scouts] are going through the draft process right now, and at the end of the day it comes down to good football players. Any player that can come here and be a good teammate, follow the rules of our program which is one, be respectful and produce on the football field, we’ve got room for that guy.”
San Francisco 49ers
Let's start with the obvious: it's San Francisco. This team has had a long history with LGBT fans, they play for America's big gay city, and they were even the first NFL team to make an It Gets Better video in 2012.
But remember, this is the same team in which Chris Culliver, their current cornerback, said in 2013, there shouldn't be any gay players on his team after former teammate Kwame Harris came out. He apologized, and made a visit to the Trevor Project, and other players denounced what he said, but will those sentiments linger? Who knows, but Jonathan Martin, known largely for being bullied by Richie Incognito, John Jerry, and Mike Pouncey while at the Miami Dolphins, is now a Niner, so maybe that's a good sign.
In April, San Francisco 49ers owner John York said Sam's sexual orientation was a nonissue to the team, and that if he is the right person for what his team needs, they will draft him.
"I think that we've played a role in that being the San Francisco bay area in trying to be a leader and recognizing that individual rights play a role within sports as they do in the rest of the world," he said according to CNN.
While the Colts are one of the teams that seemed to be particularly interested in Sam, the team only has five picks, the fewest in the league. In fact, they don't even get to choose any players until the second round. That, paired with the fact that they need bigger players on the defensive line, is not looking great for Sam.
Chuck Pagano, the Colts' head coach, said his team has never discriminated on sexual orientation, but that doesn't line up with the state of Indiana, which does not have the legal protections that would apply to Sam as an employee of the team or NFL. The state's LGBT-related employment policy only applies to government employees.
Baltimore is seeking defensive players this week, and while Sam is perhaps not the "impact player" they're looking for, he is definitely on the team's radar. Of course retired Ravens star and LGBT advocate Brendon Ayanbadejo congratulated Sam immediately after coming out, but he also said Sam might not be the right guy for the team's defensive scheme. Nonetheless, Sam has been spotted with Ravens scouts in the last few months.
"Any player that has the qualities to be a great player and a good teammate is a guy that fits us," head coach John Harbaugh said to the Sun. "We’re really good at helping players, any player, become a part of our team. That goes to all the things that I think are happening in the NFL the last couple of months.
Browns general manager Ray Farmer said that he would be open to a gay player, and would want people like Wade Davis, executive director of You Can Play, to come speak to his entire team about welcoming players of diverse backgrounds. Furthermore, Browns owner Jimmy Haslam said his team would be open to recruiting Sam if they liked him as a player.
Apparently Sam did something to wow the team at Missouri's Pro Day, since the Browns were one of the teams that spoke to him later. They are reportedly interested in an outside linebacker, which is one of the Browns' deepest positions.
Owner Jerry Jones told USA Today that his team would accept a gay player at the NFL's annual meeting this year. Stephen Jones, the team's executive vice president, said Sam's relationship with his Missouri team mates is emblematic of how well he would fit in on a team.
While some have said Sam being gay might be a "distraction," Dallas is not unfamiliar with media attention. It seems every season, whether it's Deion Sanders' general being, or Jessica Simpson's involvement with Tony Romo, they're one of those teams that even football novices know a little something about.
On a practical level, the team is apparently in need of a situational pass rusher, which is one of Sam's most well-known skills. But another practical matter is the fact that Texas is one of those states where Sam would have very few legal rights.
New England Patriots
While a team like the Dallas Cowboys would be cool with having such a newsworthy player on the squad, ESPN's Mike Reiss says Bill Belichick's Patriots would have the opposite effect. Sort of like how Tim Tebow just faded into the team quietly for a year, Sam would probably quietly become part of the pack if the Patriots took him in.
However, while owner Robert Kraft has said he would be glad to take Sam, he might not be the right defensive player for this particular team. Still, since Sam would be a late-round pick, the Patriots wouldn't need him to start, giving him time to build his skills and to use him as a situational pass-rusher.
Seattle's quarterback Russell Wilson ensured that he and his teammate would "treat him with utmost respect, just like everybody else." Both Seattle coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider have also created a team atmosphere that has been described as collaborative and family-like.
Overall, the team's defensive lineup is in good shape, but it turns out, they need a defensive end — in addition to a tight end and a wide receiver — and it would be most helpful to pick a versatile defensive end.
New York Giants
Retired defensive end Trevor Price said the Giants, among other teams, would be a good fit for Sam, and that sentiment was echoed by the team's CEO John Mara, chairman Steve Tisch, and Giants' special team captain Zak DeOssie who wished him luck for the draft in February.
"Michael Sam is a gifted athlete and a courageous man," Tisch said in February. "Our game is the ultimate team game, and we often talk about how a team is a family. Regardless of where you are from, what your religious beliefs are, what your sexual orientation is, if you are good enough to be on the team, you are part of the family."
Still, the team isn't necessarily looking for a defensive end or outside linebacker like Sam. According to the Syracuse Post-Standard, they're in need of a tight end, offensive tackle, running back, defensive tackle, and wide receiver.