University of Missouri

Missouri’s Michael Sam seeks football identity at Senior Bowl

Updated: 2014-01-23T16:31:21Z

By TEREZ A. PAYLOR

The Kansas City Star

— Michael Sam spent his entire career at Missouri as a 4-3 defensive end, so he was confident, yet realistic, about whether he’d need some time to adjust to playing outside linebacker at the Senior Bowl this week.

“I don’t know,” Sam said with a grin on Monday. “We’ll see.”

His performance so far? Good and bad, depending on whom you ask. For instance, NFL Network analyst Charles Davis watched Sam, the 2013 Southeastern Conference defensive player of the year, dominate three straight times in one-on-one pass-rush drills on Tuesday and was blown away.

“Pass-rushing straight ahead, (he) was terrific today,” Davis said. “I mean, they didn’t block him at all in those situations.”

Mark Dulgerian of OptimumScouting.com was also impressed with Sam’s array of pass-rush moves, though he didn’t think they were particularly effective during the times he watched him in one-on-one pass-rush drills vs. backs, tight ends and linemen on Tuesday.

“He’s a good athlete,” Dulgerian said. “It’s just a matter of putting it together with the speed and the moves and being able to execute it with success.”

The differing opinions about Sam’s performance Tuesday speak to the highly subjective nature of scouting during Senior Bowl week. However, trends do emerge, and Dulgerian and Davis do agree on one thing: Based on the first few practices, the 6-foot-2, 260-pound Sam will probably have to make his living in the NFL with his hand in the dirt, barring considerable improvement at outside linebacker.

Sam is the 12th-best outside pass rusher in the draft, according to ESPN’s Scouts Inc.

“I don’t think he’s a linebacker. ... I’m sorry,” Davis said. “With his size, he looks like a linebacker, but he plays the game straight ahead, not backing up, and I think that’s his best way (for him to play).”

Dulgerian also noticed that Sam performed better in the one-on-one drills when allowed to come out of a three-point stance, a staple of 4-3 ends, as opposed to a two-point stance, a staple of 3-4 linebackers.

“That seems to be where he’s more comfortable, getting into his rush moves and using his initial power instead of setting up defenders off the edge from a two-point stance,” Dulgerian said. “I didn’t see him much in pass coverage, but from what I know about him and what I saw (Monday) … that’s really not his strong suit, overall.”

The one thing Sam, who racked up 48 tackles (19 for a loss), 11 1/2 sacks and nine quarterback hurries last season, does have going for him are his pass-rush skills, and that’s a valuable trait in today’s pass-friendly NFL. More and more, teams are willing to sacrifice size and run-stopping ability to harass the quarterback, which benefits faster, lighter pass rushers like Sam and Auburn’s Dee Ford, who checked in at 6 feet 2 and 243 pounds on Monday.

“It’s all about making plays now,” Ford said. “People like Robert Mathis, Von Miller, they come to the league and prove all this size and measuring wrong.”

Sam certainly hopes he will do the same at the next level, regardless of his position.

“I am a pass rusher,” Sam said. “If they get me in a pass-rush opportunity, I’m going to sack the quarterback.”

To reach Terez A. Paylor, call 816-234-4489 or send email to tpaylor@kcstar.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/TerezPaylor.

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