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The Notebook: A look at Michael Sam's future as a pass rusher

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Does Missouri defensive end Michael Sam have the moves to be a productive NFL pass rusher? Retired NFL defensive end Stephen White takes a look.

SB Nation 2014 NFL Draft

Since Michael Sam came out as gay this spring, there has been a lot of speculation about where the All-American, first-team All-SEC defensive end would be drafted. That would be a good enough reason in my book to do a breakdown. But I also referenced Sam previously in my look at his teammate, Kony Ealy, and I wanted to clarify what I meant when I said Sam had the better technique of the two.

For the purposes of this breakdown I watched Sam play against Vanderbilt, Georgia, Florida, South Carolina and Oklahoma State. Those games represented the fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth and 14th games of his final season, respectively. DraftBreakdown.com has the video cutups.

I will stipulate that the spacing of these games was not ideal for me. Most of these games fell in the middle of the season, when Sam went on his hot streak and racked up most of his sacks. On the other hand, I would say the fact that he was so good in the meaty part of Missouri's SEC East schedule means that we watched him play on some pretty big stages with some pretty high stakes.

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All things considered, I think it's safe to say that Sam's production was a huge part of why Missouri found itself in the SEC Championship Game in just its second year in the conference. What I'm trying to say is that Sam not getting a sack against Murray State is not that big of a deal to me, considering he had at least one sack against the likes of Vandy, Georgia, Florida and South Carolina, with three apiece against Vandy and Florida.

Now that we got that out of the way, on to the breakdown!

One hitta quitta

I can say with confidence that Michael Sam was a certified beast as a pass rusher this past season. Yeah, we all know that he had 11.5 sacks. But, it wasn't just the sacks. Sam is the best corner rusher that I have broken down thus far. By corner rusher I mean he beat the tackle around the corner on his way to the quarterback rather than run down the middle of him or use a move inside. I would almost bet that Sam had more wins around the corner than the other guys I've broken down even had attempts to get around the corner. Some of that, with a guy like Clowney, was due to the relentless chip blocks they sent at him, but Sam was double-teamed quite a bit as well.

Beating a guy around the corner in college football is a dying art, so when you see a guy who can do it consistently, it jumps right out and grabs you. These days, unless the pass rusher is one of those freaks who runs a 4.6 40 or better, you hardly even see guys trying to get around the corner. Even those freakish guys, like Clowney, don't always have the technique to turn the corner when they have a one-on-one opportunity to go along with their athletic ability. While they're fast, they aren't fast enough to get around the offensive tackle using only speed on a consistent basis.

Sam is no speed demon, obviously, as he only ran a 4.91 at the NFL Combine. However, what Sam does have is an excellent get-off on the ball and an uncanny ability to get his hips turned right away. When he executes his rip move he can stay on course and get to the quarterback. Some people don't understand that pass rushing is a 5- to 7-yard dance more so than a sprint. If you are a good dancer and can get off the ball, that can go a long way to making up for a slow 40 time.

I don't know if Sam honed his skills to a razor's edge over his time in college or if he was naturally blessed with them, but time and time again you see Sam at least tie the offensive lineman out of his stance on his get-off, run right to the level of the quarterback, dip and rip or rip and dip, and be in position to get a sack or a pressure. He is so good at it that you figure there is no way he will get around the offensive tackle because they are about even when they make contact, and yet he still finds a way to do just that.

28 out of 54

54 times in five games Sam attempted a corner rush in a one-on-one matchup with an offensive tackle.

28 times in five games Sam beat that offensive tackle around the corner.

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That's an amazing ratio of winning around the corner for a college pass rusher.

Since I'm throwing out numbers, let me also point out that I had Sam with 11 hurries in those five games and 10 plays where he hit the quarterback but didn't get the sack. That's what you call getting after it!

Sam is the best corner rusher that I have broken down thus far.

I know some of y'all who are reading this already knew Michael Sam's stats backward and forward and were ready to pounce when I said he got at least one sack in all five games that I watched.

"Wait a minute dammit, he didn't get a sack against Georgia!"

I'm sure y'all were anxious to get down to that comment box and let me have it (hey when I mess up, by all means unload the clip). But here's the thing: he had a sack taken away from him against Georgia. And it was bullshit. He beat the right tackle with a quick rip move, sacking Aaron Murray a half-second after Murray finished his drop back. That tells me that whatever the hell the referees called had no impact, i.e. didn't help Sam get the sack. He earned it, and I'm awarding it to him on my grade sheet.

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Fight me.

Anyway, back to this outside move of Sam's. You have to give Sam credit for developing that move to the level where he could win with it such a high percentage of the time, but you also have to tip your hat to him for continuing to do the move over and over rather than trying to mix it up for mixing it up's sake.

There are so many young pass rushers who want to try every move in the book. Few ever develop a single move enough to be confident in it all the time. Instead, most are just OK at a bunch of different shitty moves. Sam played to his strengths, especially in crunch time, and that shows me a guy who is very disciplined and mentally strong. He knew what needed to be done, knew what he had to do to accomplish it, and tried to do it exactly as planned.

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The dip-and-rip was Sam's knockout move, his one hitta quitta. He knew he could get the corner almost whenever he wanted, and he did not let offensive tackles off the hook by screwing around and trying a bunch of other stuff. Having a move that effective is a definite plus for a pass rusher because he knows that offensive tackles will fear that move. That opens up a world of possibilities.

Of course, that's great and all, but these breakdowns are about what a guy will be able to do on the next level more so than what he was able to do in college. The question is, would Sam be able to have the same kind of success getting around the corner in the NFL?

I'm glad you asked.

Get big

I already talked a lot about Sam's pass-rush ability and technique, but he was sharp against the run as well. It appears Sam has been taught how to play his keys the same way I was taught back in college. That means if your offensive tackle blocks inside instead of coming out to block, then you shuffle inside with your shoulders parallel to the line of scrimmage until you meet a blocker. Then, you "wrong arm" (take your outside shoulder and rip through his inside shoulder) him to spill (make the ball bounce outside) the play. That's how you blow up a lot of counters and power-Os instead of getting blown up when you get too far up the field with your shoulders turned inside.

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Sam was also good with his hands and getting his elbows locked when playing off a block. That allowed him to escape the block and make some plays when the ball came his way.

He didn't have to do that much because his defensive coordinator had him stunting inside a ton. I mean a TON. To his credit, Sam was pretty good on movement, and he really had a knack for getting small and making his way inside the offensive tackle's block, which is crucial to the success of those stunts.

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I also didn't see any problems with Sam's effort. He was always running to the ball and trying to get to the play.

OK, so he can do all that. He hustles and he is a really good pass rusher, so what's the downside?

My simple answer is he isn't functionally strong enough right now. His level of functional strength in college going against other college players was fine because it's not like he got pushed around much. The problem is he rarely did the pushing around either. That tells me that while Sam did a decent job of holding his ground against the run in college, he is probably going to have a harder go of it in the pros.

That would be my biggest question mark with Michael Sam as a 4-3 defensive end on the next level. I never really saw Sam try a straight-up power pass-rush move in any of those five games. Even fast guys have to be able to mix some power rushes in the rotation to keep the offensive tackles honest. Guys who are corner rushers need to be able to convert their outside rushes into power rushes when they can't get around the offensive tackle.

I never saw Sam do that.

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Photo credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

What I did see was him end up playing patty cake with the offensive linemen several times when he couldn't get around the corner. That's a wasted pass rush, and all he could do was hope his secondary held up and/or that somebody else on the defensive line would step up and get pressure. Being able to convert speed to power is how the best speed/corner rushers stay productive even on plays when they don't win initially because they are still always able to put themselves in position to be close to the quarterback.

Just getting around the corner itself in the NFL could be more difficult for Sam because of the lack of functional strength. With any kind of rip move you have to be able to rip hard enough to get the offensive tackle's hands off you. That requires a lot of explosion from your hips and strength in your shoulders. Plus, the guys you are going against in the NFL are as good as the best offensive linemen you went against in college.

If Sam can't get around the corner on a regular basis in the pros, then there aren't a lot of other ways that he can be successful.

And that's the bottom line

As much as people are down on Sam because of his slow 40 time, my biggest concern would be his bench press number, 17 reps. I always say 20 is my litmus test. Any more than 20 reps of 225 pounds is an exhibition of endurance more than strength. If a guy gets fewer than 20 reps but shows his functional strength on the field, then maybe I could give him a pass.

With Sam, both his film and his bench press numbers are red flags about his strength level.

Photo credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

It will be critical for Sam to get stronger in a hurry. I know the kids like to say "rise and grind" these days, and if Sam really wants to make it in the NFL he has to make that his personal slogan. It's not an impossible mission. Hell, I needed to get stronger when I came out of college too. I had a good trainer, and I worked my ass off to make it happen, same as a bunch of guys do every year. He just has to commit to it if he hasn't already.

If Sam can get substantially stronger, I really believe he is going to play, and I do mean play, five or more years in the NFL. It might not sound like much, but if a front office or head coach believes they can get five or more productive years out of a good pass rusher who can turn the corner and who can also probably contribute on special teams, most of them would love to draft a guy like that in the later rounds.

I can't predict rounds for guys other than the first round. Who the hell really knows what will happen after that. If Michael Sam is drafted in the fifth round, I don't think whichever team that drafts him will be disappointed in the long run. Once he gets the functional strength to go along with his superb technique then there won't be any reason why Sam can't be a quality NFL player.

It's just a matter of Michael Sam putting in the work and a team deciding to take a chance that what he did in college can eventually translate to the NFL. Whatever round he is taken in won't ultimately matter anyway, because I see a bright future ahead of him as an NFL player.