Michael Sam to the Jets? It's complicated
February, 10, 2014
By Rich Cimini | ESPNNewYork.com
In light of Michael Sam's announcement Sunday night, we ponder the question: Could the New York Jets draft the former Missouri defensive end?
Sam, the first openly gay NFL draft prospect, would attract major media attention wherever he plays, but it would be magnified in a market as large as New York. The Jets are only two years removed from the Tim Tebow circus, a season-long distraction that ultimately factored into the firing of general manager Mike Tannenbaum. His replacement, John Idzik, did a nice job last season of eliminating the peripheral nonsense that surrounded the franchise, keeping the focus on football.
This isn't to suggest that Idzik is close-minded and would dismiss Sam as a draftable player because of his sexual orientation, but there's a risk-reward dynamic that goes into every personnel decision. He'd have to ask himself, "Is Sam worth it?" Remember, we're not talking about a blue-chip prospect here; Sam is generally considered a middle-round talent.
The Tebow madness never subsided because the Jets kept splashing kerosene on the fire, mismanaging his role and allowing the circus to get out of control. The Sam story would dominate training camp and would spill into the regular season, but it would eventually fade away -- unless it sparks friction in the locker room and the friction becomes public. Then you're talking about a mega story.
Some people believe the team that drafts Sam needs a strong locker room. Do the Jets have a strong locker room? It's hard to say. Sure, they have a few wise heads, but more than anything, it's a locker room in transition, filled with younger players trying to build careers in the NFL. Obviously, the Missouri locker room was filled with young players and they didn't let Sam's secret stop them from having a terrific season, but they also didn't have reporters poking microphones in their faces every day, asking their feelings on having a gay teammate.
"As far as I'm concerned, if a guy's a good teammate and he can help you win, I'd be open to anybody," Rex Ryan said in an interview with the Huffington Post last spring, shortly after NBA player Jason Collins acknowledged he's gay. "... It wouldn't bother me whatsoever."
Sam wouldn't be an ideal scheme fit for the Jets. Standing under 6-foot-2, weighing about 255 pounds, he's too small to play his college position -- defensive end -- in the Jets' 3-4 scheme. He'd have to switch to outside linebacker. It's a fairly common conversion, but there are no guarantees. Dare we mention Vernon Gholston? There are questions about whether Sam has the athleticism to play linebacker. He reportedly struggled in linebacker drills at the Senior Bowl.
Ryan generally prefers outside linebackers to be at least 6-4. There are exceptions such as Antwan Barnes, who is only 6-1, but Ryan had a history with him, going back to their days in Baltimore. Sam could be a "rush" linebacker in the Jets' scheme, allowing him to rush from his familiar three-point stance, but they already have a young, ascending player in that position -- Quinton Coples. The strongside linebacker, Calvin Pace, is an unrestricted free agent. If Pace signs elsewhere, they'd have a hole to fill, but Sam isn't a plug-and-play prospect, especially not at a new position -- a position that would require him to step outside his comfort zone.
Sam's college production (11.5 sacks last season) jumps off the page; that alone would pique the curiosity of those in the Jets' draft room. Ryan has an uncanny ability to find a player's strength and put him in a position to succeed. If he thinks Sam can be an effective pass-rusher from a three-point stance, he'd use him that way; he wouldn't ask him to cover tight ends.
Ordinarily, a player of Sam's skill set and resume would be a steal in the middle or late rounds. But for the Jets, a Tebow-scarred team with many other needs, it might be best to go in another direction.