Why Michael Sam can excel in the CFL

Though Michael Sam did not play a regular-season down in the NFL, he has the skill set to flourish up north. “He can be an outstanding CFL rush end,” Jim Popp, Montreal Alouettes vice president, general manager and director of football operations, told NFP. The Alouettes, who signed Sam on May 22, run an aggressive scheme with a four-man front, which emphasizes pressuring the passer, and employ bump-and-run coverage in the secondary. Moreover, the CFL has 12 players on each side of the ball, and the extra player is typically a receiver on offense and a defensive back on defense. So, the Alouettes use a 4-3-5 scheme or often a dime look with six defensive backs. Those extra secondary players focus on coverage responsibilities, which will allow Sam to concentrate on pressuring the quarterback. “There will be times where he has to drop,” Popp said. “But 95 percent of the time he’ll be rushing the passer.” That should enable Sam, 25, to avoid one of the weaknesses in his game — dropping back into coverage — that prevented him from hanging on with an NFL team. Sam, however, has a knack for rushing the passer. In the best conference in the country, he recorded 11.5 sacks and 19 tackles for loss during his senior season at Missouri and was named the SEC’s Co-Defensive Player of the Year in 2013. During the 2014 NFL preseason, he tied for fourth in the league with three sacks. But the 6-2, 260-pound Sam, who ran a 4.99 in the 40 at the NFL’s veterans combine in March, was knocked by NFL teams for being a tweener — too slow to be a 3-4 linebacker and too small to play defensive line. The CFL is often a refuge for players deemed to have inadequate speed or size for the NFL. Doug Flutie, who NFL teams rejected because of his 5’10” height, became a six-time Most Outstanding Player in the CFL. “We don’t get caught up in measurables,” Popp said. Popp also is not concerned by the fact that Sam is gay. “Absolutely not,” said Popp, who lauded Sam’s character and leadership. “We see everyone as equal.” Sam was not only the first openly gay player to be drafted by the NFL, but Popp also said he is the first one in the CFL, and the CFL is embracing his barrier-breaking status. “The league office is very happy,” Popp said. Sam has been on the Alouettes’ negotiation list since college. The CFL has a draft, but it is only for Canadian citizens. Free agents can be placed on a negotiation list of 35 players, a first-come, first-serve, private list only known to CFL teams and the league office. Noteworthy players who have been on the Alouettes’ negotiation list include Russell Wilson (who was once deemed too short for the NFL and was recruited to N.C. State by future Alouettes coach Marc Trestman), Clay Matthews (a former USC walk-on once considered too slight), Colin Kaepernick (once considered a product of a gimmicky system at Nevada) and Tim Tebow. CFL teams can take a player off at any time but cannot tamper with someone else’s list. Hypothetically, they could even put high school players on that list, though they cannot negotiate with them or college players until they have declared for the draft or already have spent four years in college. The Rams drafted Sam in the seventh round (249th overall) in 2014 before releasing him prior to the season. With Chris Long and Robert Quinn holding down a stacked defensive end group, St. Louis may not have been the best fit. “That was one of the strongest points of that team,” Popp said. “That was (working) against him.” Receiving playing time with the Alouettes, a vaunted CFL franchise that has made eight Grey Cup appearances in the 21st century, is not guaranteed either. Defensive end John Bowman, the franchise’s all-time leading sacker, leads a deep group. “The position we’re bringing him into (has) four very good guys,” Popp said. Sam signed a reported one-year deal, and the Alouettes hold the option for the 2016 season, though Popp often allows his players to move on if they receive NFL interest. So if Sam can rise up the Montreal depth chart and produce big this year — like former B.C. Lions pass rusher Cameron Wake — he could find himself back in the NFL within a year. Sam begins his CFL journey at the Alouettes’ rookie camp, which starts Wednesday. After his NFL campaign focused on how a gay football player would mesh with his team, the narrative now has become whether he can make an impact on the field. “This young man just wants to be a football player,” Popp said. “He wants to play.” Follow Jeff on Twitter @JFedotin