Cyd Zeigler, writing for Outsports, penned an article that claimed that the NFL was surely homophobic in its drafting of Michael Sam due to the first round draft selection of fellow Missouri defensive end Shane Ray last night. Mr. Zeigler points to athletic measurables, often taken at the NFL combine and Pro Days, to strengthen his claim that the two players are not 226 selections different. Mr. Zeigler's assessment appears fair at first, as he compares their body sizes, speed, and accrued college statistics, but a strong bias comes through in his writing that cannot be ignored.
Michael Sam's Combine Spider Chart
Seen above is Michael Sam's combine "spider chart" which compares his athletic performance to other players in his position using percentiles. As it can be seen, Sam has athletic inadequacies when it comes to the football field at the next level. Sam's chart is highly concentrated toward the middle, except for his broad jump. The chart shows that Sam does not have a trait that necessarily, at least athletically, sticks out among his peers. His speed splits are poor, though he did have some hamstring problems at the combine, and he showed a weakness in strength with his bench press. His change of direction shows to be lacking with the 3 cone drill and 20 yard shuttle. Sam did have great success in his 4 years playing at Missouri, earning SEC defensive player of the year, but his poor athletic measurables hurt a draft stock that was considered to be in the middle rounds. His admittance that he is a gay man most likely had him drop as well, but not as much as Mr. Zeigler would claim in my opinion. It is clear that Sam has athletic shortcomings even beyond his hamstring issues.
Shane Ray's Spider Chart
Above is Shane Ray's spider chart. One of Mr. Zeigler's claims is that Ray ony tested 1-10% better on certain drills than Sam and is slightly smaller in arm length, hand size, and weight. Mr. Zeigler is indeed correct about size, but his 1-10% value take into consideration the actual times the two ran or the number of reps they performed, but do not take into consideration their peers, which could lead to a percentile. As it can be seen above, Shane Ray posseses incredible speed and explosion at his position. Ray tested in the 89th percentile in the 40 yard dash and 78th percentile in the broad jump, two measures of speed and explosion. Ray did very poorly in the 3 cone drill, but Ray did these drills with a serious toe/foot injury that will sideline him for 5 months. Ray performed at his Pro Day after medical personnel did not clear him to perform at the NFL combine. Ray's performance then in these measurables must be looked at quite highly. I can tell you from the experience of breaking my toe in 3 places and hearing the words "possible amputation" in a doctor's office, changing direction and pushing off a severly injured toe/foot is quite challenging and very painful. Ray performed incredibly well under these circumstances, posting speed that even without injury would have scouts buzzing. Ray has a unique talent that stands out among his peers, and aside from his injury and issues with marijuana, NFL teams crave a unique skill set.
This discussion goes beyond athletic measurables though. The two players had statistically similar careers, each earning SEC defensive player of the year and All America honors. They had comparable numbers of tackles, sacks, and forced fumbles, which NFL teams look at when drafting talent. Mr. Zeigler, in his piece, failed to mention that Ray had passed Sam in two of those statistical categories in one less season, as Ray entered the draft after his junior season, while Sam played all four years in college. This speaks to the high level of production Missouri got out of Ray in his short career. With another season, Ray would have potentially smashed Sam's statistical prowess, and even had the opportunity to repeat in the post season honors he received. Mr. Zeigler shows much bias in his look at each's statistics, as Ray was on his way to one heck of a college career.
Now Mr. Zeigler does make a fair point about the two being 226 selections apart, but his analysis doesn't get at the true meaning of the claim. Sam's athletic measurables and body size make him a "hand on the ground" 4-3 defensive end, as he doesn't have the speed or fluidity to play in space and would be a liability in coverage as a 3-4 outside linebacker. This limits the number of teams that could select Michael Sam. Not every team in the NFL runs a 4-3 defense. Sam's speed also means that he is not going to be a real factor to play special teams. Though Sam's tape showed tremendous effort on every play, a strong first step, and a solid base, he's not going to be a speed rusher, which teams are craving right now. Shane Ray, on the other hand, has the speed and fluidity to be a stand of rush linebacker or 4-3 defensive end who can cover running backs coming out of the backfield. This makes Ray someone who could play for almost any team in the league. Hence Ray's stock goes up, and Sam's destination points lessen in number. Perhaps Michael Sam is much better than certain players selected ahead of him, but the fact of the matter is that teams need to fill their roster, and often draft on needs, which could have helped Michael Sam fall.
Surely his open sexuality was a factor for some individuals or potential teammates, but I do not believe it is the main reason he lacks an NFL job or was selected in the 7th round. The fact of the matter is as well that he was selected, which people dream of, and is quite the honor, and had the chance to make a roster, but was in the end, beaten out by a similar player who also had a very productive preseason. We shall see how Ray plays out in Denver, but to use his draft position as an indication of homophobia is an unproductive and unreasonable endeavor. Comparing the two players is fair, but in how the NFL is transitioning, their measurables, and potential on the field, it is no wonder that Shane Ray was a first round selection. As an ally I am very supportive of Michael Sam's desire to play football in the NFL, and hope he receives another chance, but feel as if Mr. Zeigler's piece hurts the cause that the LGBTQIA community fights for, and only could lead to further backlash for Michael Sam. I'm sure Micheal Sam was happy that his former teammate, Shane Ray, is getting to live his dream to play in the NFL. I would like to wish each player the best in their future endeavors.