COLUMBIA, Mo. -- If Michael Sam wants to be known solely as a football player -- instead of the first openly gay player to possibly compete in the NFL -- he's moving closer to that goal with each passing week. That's the biggest takeaway from Sam's pro day workout at Missouri on Thursday afternoon. The vibe around that event had less to do with Sam's sexuality and more to do with how he would perform after a disastrous effort at last month's scouting combine. He came away with more encouraging results Thursday but still failed to answer all the questions that hover around his ability.
What we now know about Michael Sam is that he can run the 40-yard dash faster than he did in Indianapolis (he timed in at 4.72 on Thursday as compared to 4.91 at the combine). He also gained a bit more strength (his bench press of 225 pounds increased from 17 to 19 reps) and displayed a lot more heart (he did the vertical jump, leaping 30 inches, after tweaking a hamstring that prevented him from running a second 40 or participating in the broad jump and three-cone and shuttle drills). Sam even seemed to be enjoying the process far more than he did at Indianapolis. While he looked tense and emotionally exhausted at the combine, he was jovial and enthusiastic inside his school's indoor facility, even after sustaining his injury.
It was a decent rebound for Sam in the pre-draft evaluation process, but the reality is that his NFL dreams will not be decided by what he does in a T-shirt and shorts. It will hinge on what Sam does when he actually faces real competition. We've reached the point where we officially can say that Sam is an ordinary athlete at best. His test in the coming months is to prove to some team that his lack of freakish talent doesn't mean he can't contribute at the next level.
"He's dealt with it like he's supposed to," said New York Jets defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson, who played with Sam at Missouri. "He brought it on himself. I told him I would've waited until after the combine [to come out] because the teams had the reports already. ... If he's drafted or not, that's up to the [teams]. But if you respect him as a football player and respect his game, then you'll like what you see on film."
The biggest positive for Sam coming out of his pro day was that 40-yard dash time. As one AFC scout said, "He definitely didn't hurt himself by running a faster time. But the thing you keep wondering about is 'fit.' You still don't know whether he can play [as a 3-4 outside linebacker or a 4-3 defensive end]." Another AFC scout added: "I was at the Senior Bowl, and that wasn't pretty for him. This was a little better."
Sam likely won't have any other opportunities to enhance his stock based on his physical skills. He's not considered a high enough prospect to believe that he'll be invited in for personal workouts. Whether he even gets drafted still remains a real question. His 40 time aside, he still lacks the explosiveness that teams covet in a player who already is undersized for his position at 6-foot-2 and 256 pounds.
Sam's best chance of finding a home in the NFL comes down to the same quality that helped him become a star at Mizzou: his relentless work ethic. He went from being an unheralded, lightly recruited high school prospect to being an All-American and SEC Defensive Player of the Year in 2013. The fact that Sam did all that despite not having eye-popping ability is something he should sell as a major positive. He turned himself into a player by making the most of the opportunities afforded to him.
From this vantage point, Sam is exactly the kind of player who will only impress coaches when they see him competing against other players. His film will help at this stage, but more important to his success is what he does in minicamps and training camp later this summer. Sam obviously doesn't lack for will or courage. These are the very qualities coaches seek in special-teams prospects and part-time defensive players, which are exactly the roles Sam will have to fill if he wants to make a living in professional football.
Sam's faster 40 time was evidence of what he can do when challenged. "You saw the improvement in his 40," said Sam's agent, Joe Barkett. "We had him working with a private speed coach. He came back here and really busted his butt. He stumbled out of the start and pulled his hammy a little bit and still ran two-tenths of a second faster. So that was good."
Sam also will have to prove what he can do when he's not one of the biggest men on campus. The most understated aspect of his story is that his decision to reveal his sexuality to his Missouri teammates came at a time when he was a respected player entering the final year of his college career. That same love and support that emboldened his teammates to protect his personal life from the general public was on display Thursday. Even when Sam tweaked his hamstring, he looked unfazed because there were plenty of teammates to joke and laugh with between the various drills.
That same affection will be harder for Sam to find in the NFL. Players care mostly about whether a guy can help them win, and Sam's raw physical ability isn't a great indication of that just yet. There's a lot to be said for how he performed in the best conference in college football last season. Then again, a lot of prospects in this year's class, as is the case every year, have a slew of accolades that they can tout as well.
Sam's saving grace is that he still will have a chance to show what he can do when there are other players lined up across from him. That opportunity might come through a franchise drafting him in May, or it might have to happen with him selecting a team as an undrafted free agent. Regardless, Michael Sam had better be ready to show something when that moment arrives. From what we've already seen, it's the only way we'll know how good a pro football player he actually can be.