Free agent defensive end Michael Sam, who last year became the first openly gay player ever chosen in the NFL draft, has already had an impact on the CFL. Now, the chances of him actually playing north of the border appear to be on the rise. Sam took part in Sunday's inaugural NFL veteran combine, but his performance there didn't earn him many plaudits, with his initially-reported 5.07 and 5.10 40-yard-dash times in particular coming in for criticism. There's important context to those numbers, which we'll discuss below, but what may be even more important are the comments from NFL figures about him. One NFL personnel director at the combine told Fox Sports' Alex Marvez that Sam's performance was "marginal," and TMZ reported Tuesday that one agent called him "flat out horrible," adding other criticisms from scouts and general managers. Like 40 times, anonymous executive comments need to be taken in context and with a significant grain of salt, but Sam's NFL chances do seem to diminishing, and he told Yahoo's Eric Adelson Sunday that he wouldn't rule out coming to the CFL, saying "If there's an opportunity, I'll take it." Just how likely are we to see Sam show up north of the border?
First, it's notable that the CFL interest in Sam is substantial. He's not only been on the Montreal Alouettes' negotiation list since last year, but general manager Jim Popp has specifically reached out to him. That's significant, as negotiation lists reflect varying degrees of interest in players. Montreal also recently had Tim Tebow on their list and may well still have him there, but Popp wasn't big on Tebow in two separate 2013 interviews, saying "If (Tebow) wants to come to Canada he will reach out to us" and "I don't know if Tim Tebow would ever work in this league." Again, a grain of salt's required (if the Alouettes did intend to ever negotiate with Tebow, public criticism of him reduces his leverage), but compare that to how Popp reportedly reached out to Sam (something he never did with Tebow) last September. That suggests the Alouettes are serious about potentially adding him if he wants to come north.
There are a lot of reasons to think Sam could be a very capable CFL (or NFL) player, so this interest isn't unfounded. Cyd Ziegler had an excellent Outsports piece in February on how Sam's level of college and NFL production is far ahead of many of the players still on NFL rosters, part of what would make him very worthy of another chance either in the NFL or the CFL. It's certainly possible that Sam could still be a good NFL player if he gets a shot there, but he might be an even better CFL player. As noted here before, Sam's size (he was listed at 6'2'', 261 pounds last year) puts him somewhat awkwardly between a LB and a DE in the NFL, but is perfectly in line with many top CFL DEs. He has significant speed and agility, and good instincts for tracking the passer down.
Similarities can be drawn between Sam and Cam Wake, another pass-rushing college star of similar size (Wake's listed as 6'3'', 262). Wake didn't get much NFL attention in his first go-round thanks partly to teams' desire to see him as a LB. He came to B.C., where he got a chance at defensive end, and became one of the most dominant defensive players in CFL history. Wake then returned to the NFL and became a consistent Pro Bowler. We don't know if Sam will ever reach that level, but his talent and his college production certainly suggest it's worth it for a CFL team to take a chance on him.
That all depends on the NFL letting Sam go, though, and that's not a foregone conclusion. This is where the caveats in the 40 times and anonymous quotes are important. First, the 40 times. The veteran combine used electronic timing handpads for the released times rather than the manual times used at the college combine, which as Yahoo's Charles Robinson noted in a series of tweets Sunday, typically add .1 to .2 seconds to the time. The track used was also reportedly slow. Thus, Sam may well have run a sub-5-second 40 closer to the 4.91 he posted at last year's rookie combine. (But hey, way to make fun of the veteran combine for slow times without looking into it, Deadspin.)
The anonymous quotes also may matter (and the ones given to Marvez more so than the ones given to TMZ; Ziegler notes that agents weren't even at the veteran combine, making TMZ's agent quotes suspicious), but their potential biases have to be considered as well. Maybe team execs are trying to lower Sam's stock so their team can land him, or maybe agents are trying to downplay Sam to hype up their own clients. Even if those quotes are completely honest, they don't necessarily mean Sam's on his way out of the NFL; all he needs is one team to believe in him, and then the rest of the league' comments are irrelevant.
Sam may not be willing to give up on the NFL yet, either, and it may be a while before he makes his decision. The NFL draft is approaching at the end of April, and teams usually spend the couple of weeks after that filling out their rosters with free agents. Even if Sam isn't signed then, he may elect to stay in the U.S. and keep training in case a team wants him as an injury replacement; that approach worked out for former CFLer and unlikely Super Bowl star Chris Matthews last year.
Would Sam's sexual orientation play a role in if he picks the CFL or not? Hopefully not. Yes, after Sam came out publicly last February, then-Montreal receiver Arland Bruce III tweeted crude and homophobic comments about him (as did Winnipeg DT Bryant Turner), and yes, then-Calgary (now-Ottawa) receiver Maurice Price tweeted and deleted homophobic comments about Sam kissing his then-boyfriend (now-fiance) last May. Those players were severely punished, though, with those comments likely serving as a factor in why Bruce is now out of the CFL (and suing the league over concussions) and Bryant and Price receiving significant fines. The CFL has very publicly stated that gay players are welcome, and they officially partnered with You Can Play last summer to promote inclusion. There still might be some nasty comments about Sam from individual players, but there are also a lot of CFL players very committed to fighting homophobia, and the league and its teams have taken firm stands that they will not discriminate. So, at the least, questions of discrimination over his orientation shouldn't convince Sam to avoid the CFL.
The supposed "media circus" (as Ziegler writes, there's not really much to that these days) that follows Sam wouldn't be a factor either. If the Alouettes still hold his rights, as it's believed they do, they definitely wouldn't be adverse; this is a team that's taken chances on plenty of high-profile guys in the past, including current receiver Chad Johnson. Neither would most CFL teams. The publicity Sam would bring would be largely good publicity, too, but even some negative publicity hasn't stopped CFL teams from employing guys (last November, the CFL employed at least four guys who have been accused of domestic violence, including Johnson). Thus, there's nothing that should keep CFL teams from taking a chance on Sam if they think he can play.
The real deciding factors in the question of if Sam will ever come to the CFL are just how much NFL interest there still is in him, how long he's willing to wait for that league, and if the CFL is his next option. We don't know any of those answers, but we can make informed guesses at them. If there's an NFL team willing to give Sam a shot this week or next, he'll almost undoubtedly take that. It seems likely he might wait until after the draft and the free agent signing frenzy that follows it, too. If Sam isn't picked up there, then it's conceivable he might come to Canada; getting on the field seems to be important for him, and he'll likely get a better chance at that in the CFL. The current CBA's creation of one-year contracts means he wouldn't be tied to the CFL forever, either, and he might take inspiration from players like Wake and the many others who have used the CFL as a springboard to another NFL shot.
There are other options for Sam, though, from waiting on the NFL further to pursuing a media career (as Tebow, another player who there used to be these kinds of discussions about, has largely done despite his recent attention-grabbing tryout with the Philadelphia Eagles). Sam's already on Dancing With The Stars, and he did a TV special with Oprah Winfrey; he's discussed doing a documentary series with her network as well. If Sam elected to go into the broadcasting game, networks would likely have interest. There could be opportunities for Sam in the football realm, too; while U.S.-based leagues below the NFL don't seem to offer the quality of play of the CFL at the moment, they may see Sam as a chance to grab some attention and sell some tickets, and they may offer him more money than the CFL would. Thus, even in a world where the NFL definitively turns down Sam (which hasn't happened yet), he may not be a lock to come to the CFL. If he does, though, he's certainly worth an extensive look, and he could turn into a special CFL player.