Michael Sam to the CFL
Michael Sam was thrust into our consciousness again recently as he signed with the CFL (with the Montreal Alouettes), effectively ending his NFL dream — or at least sending him on a significant scenic route on any path to ultimate NFL success down the line.
It has been done in the past. Cameron Wake is probably the most famous recent success story from the CFL. A pass-rusher like Sam, Wake was a CFL stud before signing in Miami and becoming one of the NFL’s most devastating pass-rushers.
The key difference between Sam and Wake, however, is that Wake is off-the-charts athletic and explosive, while Sam is not.
But let’s not get bogged down in all that surrounds Michael Sam and focus instead on his NFL playing time. Sam has never played a regular season snap in the NFL, but he was on the field for 133 defensive snaps during the 2014 preseason, when he was still with the Rams.
Over four games he earned a marginally positive grade (+0.6) but despite two sacks in those games he was actually marginally negative (-0.4) as a pass rusher. Negative and positive in these cases are relatively meaningless terms. In essence Sam was entirely average across the preseason. He had one good game (against Green Bay) and three average performances.
He ended the preseason with eight total pressures from his 77 pass-rushing snaps, a decent enough ratio, but his problem was twofold: the manner in which he earned those pressures, and the fact that his production was blown out of the water by his teammate, Ethan Westbrooks.
Westbrooks is probably the biggest thing that kept Sam from the Rams roster in 2014. They were essentially competing for the same final spot on a pretty deep defensive line. While Sam notched eight total pressures and a pass-rush grade of -0.4, Westbrooks had 13 and a pass-rush grade of +7.6. He also had a run defense grade of +6.4 and out-graded Sam to the tune of almost 14 grading points on a similar number of snaps (22 more).
As for the manner in which Sam earned his pressures – this is why there is a big grade discrepancy between Sam and Westbrooks despite the raw pressure numbers not being dramatically different. When you play with the third team during preseason you are going to come up against some terrible blockers. They may have been decent college players, but by NFL standards they are no-hopers, warm-bodies, turnstyles as pass-protectors. If you want to make it in the NFL you need to demonstrate you can destroy some of these poor-caliber players.
Of the nine total pressures Sam notched during the preseason (the eight that counted plus one that was nullified by penalty) two were entirely unblocked and six of the nine earned the lowest positive grade PFF gives because they took that long to develop. He wasn’t beating people immediately and devastatingly, he was working his way to pressure.
The three legitimate pressures he did tally included both of his sacks, and one of those came against Derek Sherrod, who has starting experience in the NFL (OK, not really starting experience playing well, but he’s not a walking roster cut like some of the other guys), but the bottom line is that Sam’s production did not scream dominance. It was comprised of the kind of marginal victories that would disappear against better competition.
Looking back at Westbrooks for comparison again, he had two of the highest-graded pressures PFF gives and 10 of his total pressures were of the more dominant variety.
Westbrooks thoroughly outplayed Sam in the 2014 preseason and earned that roster spot. The shame for Sam is that in 115 snaps during the regular season Westbrooks never came close to that level of performance again. Maybe he will again going forward, or maybe we saw him put in the performance of his life when he needed to to earn the spot, but as with Sam, with this kind of data we are dealing with very small sample sizes and are at the mercy of a hot or cold run of form.
Michael Sam has yet to show anything on tape that would convince NFL teams that he is a legitimate player at this level. Maybe he can in the CFL.
Follow Sam on Twitter: @PFF_Sam