New England is the best place for Sam to land

New England is the best place for Sam to land
February 10, 2014, 4:15 pm
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The best place for Michael Sam to land would be the New England Patriots.
 
But is Michael Sam the football player going to be what the Patriots need?
 
Sam, who has gone public with the fact he is gay, said in his interview with the New York Times, “I’m not naïve. I know this is a huge deal and I know how important this is.  But my role as of right now is to train for the Combine and play in the NFL.”
 
That pronouncement -- that Sam’s priority is his occupation and not his orientation -- should assuage concerns among coaches and GMs that Sam will be a “distraction.”
 
Obviously, he’s an honest and brave young man. As such, there’s no reason to doubt Sam’s primary intention is to be an NFL player. That being the case, the team that hires him can trust it’s hiring a hybrid DE/OLB, not a spokesman, activist or lobbyist who happens to play hybrid DE/OLB.
 
He came out on his terms, he said, so that he could be in charge of his story. And prioritizing football -- at least in the short term -- will give him the best chance to be drafted, make a team, become a solid contributor and then use his platform to promote acceptance, diversity or whatever he chooses. Or to not promote anything. It is (and this is worth mentioning) his life.
 
The stability of the Patriots organization would ensure Sam can ultimately do both.
 
The vast majority of NFL owners would embrace the opportunity to be the team that has a player such as Sam on their team. The Krafts, however, would be among the most welcoming. They are progressive, forward-thinking and promote diversity. And they don’t mind a positive headline.
 
As for Bill Belichick, my impression is that he welcomes players from diverse backgrounds who have overcome things. A little bit of “baggage” or a backstory that makes a player unique isn’t going to dissuade him from having that player on his team. As a master of team-building, Belichick would likely see Sam’s personal story as being one his players can learn and draw inspiration from.
 
The question today is whether Sam will be accepted in an NFL locker room. My impression is that, in New England, the locker room would be Sam’s safe haven.
 
This past summer, Belichick and his players expertly negotiated the rough media waters caused by the murder charge levied against Aaron Hernandez and the signing of Tim Tebow.
 
In the case of Hernandez, Belichick laid himself bare and answered questions. Once. After that, no more. And his players were instructed to speak only briefly on Hernandez, which they clearly took to heart.
 
In the case of Tebow, Belichick treated a player who is a viewed as divisive because of his overt religiosity as, well, a football player. And he didn’t deviate from discussing Tebow as a football player. Nor did Tebow’s teammates. Even as visual evidence was mounting that Tebow was overmatched, nobody even whispered about how badly he sucked.
 
The Patriots didn’t feed the media beast a crumb. It was pretty much, “Nothing going on here but football, sorry to disappoint . . .”
 
And that’s what Sam could use. A well-run organization with a single-voice leader who has the attention of his (mostly) mature locker room.
 
The NFL is a performance-based business. Performance on the game and practice fields and in meeting rooms matters more than performance in front of cameras and microphones.
 
Sam is already the face of the gay athlete. He will be viewed as a spokesman and his prospective teammates -- most of whom spend their days playing Madden and Call of Duty -- are going to become go-to authorities on explaining how exactly an openly gay athlete assimilates himself into an NFL locker room.
 
The threat of stepping on a verbal landmine is going to be constant. Tone, word selection, facial expressions, all of it will be fair game to media trying to smoke out anti-Sam sentiment.
 
It’s hard to imagine a team better equipped to handle Sam.
 
But is Sam equipped to succeed as a player. He’s obviously got pass-rushing skills. As a defensive end at Missouri, he had 11.5 sacks and 19 tackles-for-loss and was the SEC Defensive Player of the Year.
 
The SEC Defensive Player of the Year has been a first-round pick each of the past seven seasons. Only once since 2003 was the SEC DPOY drafted later than 33. That was Chad Lavalais who went to the Falcons with the 142nd pick in 2003.
 
But Sam is projected anywhere from a second to fifth-round selection because he’s too small (6-foot-2, 255) to play his customary defensive end spot professionally and not experienced playing as a linebacker.
 
Sam presents as a bit of a project for a team looking for a pass-rush specialist. The Patriots have been trending toward drafting tall, long-limbed players who can explode upfield but also disrupt passing lanes with their arms. That isn’t Sam.
 
The Patriots don’t always do it “by the book,” though so past decisions can’t be taken as proof of future leanings.
 
Once all Sam’s tape is pored over, the Combine numbers are in and the interview is over, the Patriots will have a decision to make on Michael Sam.
 
It will be good news for him if it’s a thumbs-up.  
 
SEC DEFENSIVE PLAYERS OF THE YEAR
 
2012: Jarvis Jones, OLB, 17(Steelers)
2011: Morris Claiborne, CB, 6 (Cowboys)
2010: Patrick Peterson, CB, 5 (Cardinals)
2009: Rolando McClain, LB, 8 (Raiders)
2008: Eric Berry, S, 5 (Chiefs)
2007: Glenn Dorsey, DT, 5 (Chiefs)
2006: Patrick Willis, LB, 11 (49ers)
2005: DeMeco Ryans, LB, 33 (Texans)
2004: David Pollack, LB, 17 (Bengals)
2003: Chad Lavalais, DT, 142, (Falcons)