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The NFL Draft and Michael Sam

Why he slipped and how he’ll do in St. Louis. Plus, the worst trades of the draft!

As the seventh and final round of the NFL draft rolled to a close on Saturday evening, two very important men were anxious for very different reasons. On one side, there was former Missouri defensive end Michael Sam, surely coming to grips with the possibility that his brave move to announce his sexuality in February had irreparably harmed his NFL stock and that the moment he had long been dreaming of — that phone call announcing his selection by a pro franchise — might not be happening. On the other, and much closer to the scene unfolding in New York, there was NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, who was forced to consider the PR nightmare of running a league that had publicly suggested it would welcome an openly gay player but then couldn’t find a team with the balls to actually select him.

And then the Rams stepped in and took Sam with the 249th selection of the draft. It immediately produced the most important and meaningful minute in the history of draft coverage on television, with a weeping Sam nearly brought to his knees by the relief of St. Louis’s phone call and turning and giving his boyfriend a kiss. It was a human moment — emotional and hugely deserved — and the Rams should be commended for inviting Sam into their organization.

I try to be unbiased and don’t typically find myself rooting for players or teams. I can’t make any such claims about this situation, though: I want to see Michael Sam succeed. I want him to have a long, successful NFL career. And I want that moment last night to be just the beginning of a great story that will unfold over the next decade and beyond. Which is why the rational side of me is worried. Seeing the Mizzou linebacker drafted by St. Louis made for a perfect moment, but I don’t know that it was the best thing for Sam’s future. As counterintuitive as it sounds, the best thing for Michael Sam tomorrow and beyond might very well have been going undrafted.

Why? Well, in some ways, St. Louis is a great place for Sam. As FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver noted on Saturday night, Sam will be playing just two hours away from his college stomping grounds in Columbia, Missouri. Playing in a community that has already learned to appreciate Sam certainly can’t hurt while he adjusts to the professional level. The Rams also have a strong coaching staff; head coach Jeff Fisher already gave an interview on Saturday expressing his excitement about Sam, and Mike Waufle is one of the best defensive line coaches in the NFL.

On the other hand, I have my doubts that St. Louis is the best spot. Sam is an unfinished talent. This excellent scouting report on Sam from former NFL defensive end Stephen White details Sam’s strengths and notable weaknesses as he enters the professional game — Sam is basically a pass-rusher with one move at this point in his career, an outside rush around the opposing offensive tackle. He’s very good at that one move, but it’s going to be difficult for him to survive at the professional level with that alone. Most scouting reports I’ve read (although notably not White’s) regard Sam as subpar against the run, which leaves him profiling as a situational pass-rusher on third downs at the beginning of his career.

There are teams that need that, but the Rams already have Chris Long and Robert Quinn, arguably the best pass-rush duo at defensive end in the NFL, lining up on every third down. The Rams even added a devastating one-gap penetrator in defensive tackle Aaron Donald with one of their first-round picks, so Sam will struggle to find reps even if the Rams wanted to move him inside on third downs. Sam needs snaps to get better. It’s hard to see him getting those snaps in St. Louis.

It would have been heartbreaking to see Sam go undrafted on Saturday, but it probably would have led him to a better situation than St. Louis. NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported after the draft that an unselected Sam would have been able to choose among offers from the Rams, Ravens, Bears, and Giants. Chicago and New York, in particular, stand out as places where a thinner defensive line would have created more opportunities for Sam to succeed. Like I said: I’ll never forget that moment Sam’s long wait finally ended; I just hope the opportunities afforded to him live up to the hopes of everyone like me who was rooting for him.

Click here to read all of Grantland’s 2014 NFL draft coverage.

NFL Draft Football

Before Sam came off the board, the writers and analysts who make up the broader NFL community on Twitter were becoming more and more furious. I got texts from friends who barely care about football, seriously concerned that Sam was going to go undrafted. A narrative was emerging: The league was avoiding Sam because of his sexuality. It’s unknowable what motivated individual teams, but the possibility is absolutely worthy of consideration. However, the most frequently cited evidence is, if I’m being honest, a little disingenuous. If you were following the story, you’ve probably heard it: Sam was named SEC Defensive Player of the Year (co–Defensive Player of the Year with C.J. Mosley, actually). Mosley went off the board 17th, continuing an eight-year run of SEC Defensive Players of the Year coming off the board in the first round. If the SEC Defensive Player of the Year always comes off the board in the first round, then why not Sam — if not in the first round, then at least in the middle of the draft?

Well, because that’s not a very substantial sample, nor one that means much in terms of predictive value — that award has been around only since 2003. There are actually plenty of examples of players who found themselves in similar situations. For a seven-year stretch from 2002 to 2008, the six players1 who won the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year award were all drafted in the first round. The 2009 award winner, Michigan State linebacker Greg Jones, was drafted in the sixth round, 185th overall. The Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year award went to players who would be taken within the top 37 selections five years in a row, from 2000 to 2004. The 2005 DPOY was Nick Reid, and he went undrafted. An even more appropriate comparison might be one of the co–Big 12 Defensive Players of the Year this season, Texas lineman Jackson Jeffcoat. Jeffcoat, who had 13 sacks, was one of the two Associated Press All-Americans at defensive end this year. The other was Michael Sam. Despite that strong résumé, Jeffcoat went unselected in New York.

That argument aside, was there something ugly happening here? Did Sam’s stock slip so much after he came out of the closet that it suggests foul play? Again, it’s hard to say there’s definitive proof. Sam broke out in 2013 as “easily the biggest surprise in [the SEC].” For any player whose stock rose so dramatically in just one season of play, the pre-draft process is critical, and Sam’s performance between January and May was underwhelming. His performance at the Senior Bowl — two weeks before he came out — was regarded by scouts at the time as disappointing.

It’s reasonable to wonder whether the goalposts for Sam’s success were moved unfairly, as Will Leitch did last week, but the numbers suggest Sam performed poorly. Chase Stuart of Football Perspective put the combine work of each player into statistical context and found that Sam had the sixth-worst combine performance out of the 268 attendees in Indianapolis. He suffered a hamstring injury during his pro day, preventing him from performing at 100 percent in linebacker drills. It’s hardly out of the question to imagine that a player with a midround grade, a limited history of performance, and a dismal combine showing would see his stock fall to the point Sam’s did. Presupposing that Sam had a fourth-round grade before dropping to that of roughly a sixth-rounder, Nate Silver estimated last week that his chances of being drafted were about 50-50.

And yet, like most, I can’t help but feel like Sam would have been drafted higher had he not come out. I used as many quantitative sources that wouldn’t have been informed by Sam’s decision as I could in the above paragraphs to try to point out that this sort of drop happens to prospects, but it’s also unfair to suggest that teams viewed Sam as just another prospect. And I’m not talking about homophobia as the only factor. I spoke to one NFL team that suggested it was interested in drafting Sam and had no concerns about him fitting into its locker room or creating any distractions. The team was instead worried what the public perception would be if it drafted and then cut him — and this team had projected Sam as an extremely late pick, likely to be on its roster bubble — even if it made the move solely for football-related reasons. NFL teams are horribly, impossibly risk-averse, and while I’m sure some people in the league are homophobic, many more are simply just dinosaurs, moving toward any level of progressiveness at a glacial pace.

The idea that Sam would cause some sort of locker room issue was absurd from the moment he came out — his Missouri teammates had rallied around him ever since he’d told them about his sexuality last summer. The argument that his presence would inspire a distracting amount of media attention evaporated after Jason Collins signed with the Nets in February. Collins’s return to the team drew substantial attention that quickly dissipated; the Nets, 25-28 when Collins arrived, won 19 of their next 29 games to make the playoffs, where they beat the Raptors in seven games before running into the Heat. Sam’s career in St. Louis is likely going to go the same way. There will be a huge amount of media interest at first, and once people run out of ways to ask the same questions, the throng will disappear. Sam will get to work on his professional career in a state where he has enjoyed incredible success. Soon, he will be just another young football player trying to make a living at a difficult game. On Saturday, he was anything but.


The Worst Trades of the 2014 Draft

Using the Football Perspective Draft Pick Value Calculator, which takes Chase Stuart’s research and estimates the value produced by each draft slot, I’ve gone through each swap of picks from the past three days to find the most lopsided trades of the 2014 draft. I measured the lopsidedness in terms of proportional value between sides. Some disclaimers:

• I didn’t include the two trades that involved players, so there’s no analysis of the Stevie Johnson and Bryce Brown swaps.

• To determine the value of a 2015 pick, I estimated where that team would land in the standings and used that estimate to determine where the pick in question might fall in next year’s draft. Chicago, for example, sent a fifth-rounder to the Broncos. My estimate is that the Bears will be the 16th-best team in the league next year, mostly because they’ve been right around that spot over the past few seasons, so I assigned the value of this pick to be the 16th pick in the fifth round, or the 156th selection. If you’re going to get aggro because your team is projected a few slots too high or too low five months before the season even begins, chill. It’s just a guess.

• For the purposes of this losers list, I’m not discounting the value of future picks. I see no reason why they should be discounted unless it’s a situation where a team is extremely likely to improve the following season (e.g., the value of an Atlanta 2015 first-round pick as opposed to Atlanta’s 2014 first-rounder). Those selections mean just as much next year.

5. Miami-Oakland
Miami sent: 81st, 116th overall picks
Oakland sent: 67th overall pick
Oakland got: 131 percent of trade value
This is one of those deals that gets lost in the shuffle because it doesn’t involve a key player or an obviously bad swap, but it’s trading too much for a minor upgrade. The difference between 67 and 81, per Stuart’s model, is roughly equivalent to the 194th overall pick, a late sixth-round selection. The Dolphins instead sent a pick from the middle of the fourth round to move up and draft North Dakota State tackle Billy Turner. In a draft that was so deep in tackles, could a small-school player like Turner have been so valuable that it was worth giving up a fourth-round pick?

4. Dallas-Washington
Dallas sent: 47th, 78th overall picks
Washington sent: 34th overall pick
Washington got: 140.5 percent of trade value
I actually thought the Cowboys had a very good draft, but they can’t afford to be giving up picks with such a thin roster. Players like James Jones and Louis Vasquez have come off the board 78th in recent years. Dallas moved up to grab pass-rusher Demarcus Lawrence, while Washington curiously used the 47th pick on Stanford outside linebacker Trent Murphy, whose most obvious role in Washington’s scheme is as a backup behind Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan at the team’s most stacked position. Even when Washington wins, it loses.

3. Denver–San Francisco
Denver sent: 63rd, 171st overall picks and a 2015 fourth-rounder
San Francisco sent: 56th, 242nd overall picks
San Francisco got: 153.6 percent of trade value
Want to figure out how the 49ers keep managing to find talent and win football games? Trent Baalke’s pretty good at this draft stuff. Had the Niners just swapped 56 and 242 for 63 and 171, they would have won the deal by a tiny margin. Baalke managed to up the ante and get a future fourth-rounder to sweeten the pot, which is pretty nice — even projecting the Broncos as the sixth-best team in football next year, the 49ers would be getting the 126th pick in the draft to improve what was already a solid deal. That’s not enough for Baalke, though. He wants your cash AND your jewelry. After making this trade, Baalke sent the 63rd and 171st picks he received from Denver to the Dolphins for the 57th selection. In other words, for trading down one spot and giving up the 242nd selection, Baalke got the 126th pick next year. That’s the same selection the 49ers used to grab Dashon Goldson in 2007. They might not do that well again, but it’s an asset they can use to trade up or stash away the next Marcus Lattimore or Tank Carradine.

2. Buffalo-Cleveland
Cleveland sent: Fourth overall pick
Buffalo sent: Ninth overall pick, 2015 first-round and fourth-round picks
Cleveland got: 170.5 percent of trade value
More than any other swap, this trade depends on where one team ends up next year. If the Bills make the playoffs, it’s only a marginally aggressive move. If they finish with one of the three worst records in the league, it’s obviously a legendary failure. I used a relatively conservative figure here and suggested the Bills would have the 12th-worst record in the league next year, which would send Cleveland the 12th and 112th selections in next year’s draft. That’s a brilliant swap for Browns general manager Ray Farmer, even if it meant passing on wideout Sammy Watkins. Of course, given the job security afforded the last generation of Cleveland’s personnel men, Farmer will have to hope he’s around to actually use his bounty next year.

1. Baltimore-Cleveland
Cleveland sent: 218th overall pick
Baltimore sent: 2015 sixth-round pick
Cleveland got: 400 percent of trade value
The final trade of the draft was also its most lopsided. It’s a marginal deal, of course, but there’s just no way to make an early seventh-round pick more valuable than a future sixth-rounder, no matter how you slice it. Even projecting the Ravens as the 15th-best team in the league, this is still like dealing 218 for 191 and moving up 27 slots for free.


But the Least Logical Trade of the 2014 Draft Belongs To …

… Jacksonville! The Jaguars traded up twice this weekend, first sending the 150th pick to the 49ers for the privilege of moving up from 70 to 61, where they drafted wideout Allen Robinson. The Jags were applauded for finding “weapons” for new quarterback Blake Bortles, but even if Robinson develops into a player, he would theoretically be the third wideout in Jacksonville’s offense behind Cecil Shorts and earlier second-rounder Marqise Lee. And that’s without considering the possibility of Justin Blackmon ever returning. The 49ers, meanwhile, used the pick on center Marcus Martin, who would have filled a much more pressing need for Jacksonville. The Jaguars later sent the 105th and 179th picks to the Patriots for the 93rd pick, where they drafted a much-needed lineman in Brandon Linder.

This seems like small beer — they filled a need and gave up only a pick to do it — but it’s just not logical for a team to give up any picks when it has so many holes up and down the roster. There’s a reason Ted Thompson traded down over and over again when he rebuilt the Green Bay roster. And it’s no coincidence GM Dave Caldwell found trade partners in New England and San Francisco, two franchises that have been taking advantage of their desperate, foolish peers for years. (Seattle traded down three times this weekend, too.) In fact, this is the same sort of mistake Gene Smith repeatedly made during his time as Jaguars general manager, when he traded up over and over again while trading down just once in four seasons.

You can’t fall in love with your board and trade up because you’ve got a second-round grade on a guy who’s available in the third round, especially at the beginning of a rebuild. Randomness and variance swamp knowledge and scouting before a player gets to the NFL. If the Jaguars continue to build otherwise, they’ll continue to field a roster with too many holes filled by replacement-level talent, even if Bortles does develop.

And now, finally, the longest NFL player acquisition period in recent memory has come to a close. To whatever extent the NFL offseason is remotely a real thing, we’ve hit it. With rosters mostly confirmed for training camp, it’s time to run through the arduous process of not thinking about football, if only for a few weeks. 

Filed Under: NFL Draft, NFL, Michael Sam, St. Louis Rams, Bill Barnwell

Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell