Former University of Missouri defensive end Michael Sam has a tough road ahead of him. As he attempts to become the first openly gay athlete in the NFL, the weight of navigating his journey may prove to be too cumbersome if he has go it alone—in a theoretical sense, of course.
Sam has undoubtedly received widespread support and adulation from many quarters leading up to the draft. But the support he receives in his newly minted hometown (upon being drafted) will be the make-or-break scenario that'll be a major determinant as to how smooth his transition will be.
NFL front offices not only have to weigh not only the temperature of their locker rooms and organizations, but also have a firm gauge on the city Sam will call home. Although the majority of NFL teams are in major cities, not all metropolitan areas are created equal—in terms of progressiveness.
That's why Atlanta Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff needs to think extremely hard about bringing Sam to the "Gate City of the South." Not only would Sam be a perfect schematic fit, but there's not an NFL city more prepared to welcome a young, talented man like Sam regardless of his sexual orientation.
Atlanta is an interesting city, despite being in the heart of the "Bible Belt," it's home to one of the highest percentages of African-American entrepreneurs in the United States (according to this article by Leon Stafford of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution). Additionally, there are pockets of the city that's dedicated to everything from arts to music.
Photo courtesy of Getty Images
For a city that was once at the forefront of the civil-rights movement, it needs to be stated how far we've come culturally. And it's none more apparent than with Atlanta's gay scene.
It's widely known that Labor Day Weekend is by far the busiest weekend of the year for our great city. We sports fans have college football's Chick-fil-A Kickoff classic at the Georgia Dome, which usually coincides with an Atlanta Braves game.
For those that are into science fiction, the famed Dragon Con exhibit runs all weekend as well. And to top it off, the Atlanta Pride Festival (also referred to as Black Gay Pride) brings in thousands of diverse party-goers for a two-day extravaganza that culminates with "National Coming Out Day," according to GayAtlanta.com.
Photo courtesy of AtlantaPride.org
Now for those of you who've never been to Atlanta on this weekend. These events are literally happening within a 10-mile radius of each other. The residents that live in the suburbs in the northern part of town usually take the transit (called MARTA) to get to the city.
To say those train rides are full of diversity is an understatement. You have hundreds of thousands of people, all unique in their own way, commuting and communicating with each other. It's truly a beautiful site for a major city in the southern part of the country.
As it pertains to Sam, as Atlanta is commonly described as the "Gay Capital of the South," having an openly-gay athlete-who is the absolute truth as a football player-would be worth its weight in gold for the city. You can't frequent the party scene in Atlanta and not mix with a wide-range of lifestyles-some alternative. It's virtually impossible. So you can bet your bottom dollar that the majority of the Falcons' locker room wouldn't bat an eye at Sam's presence—nor should they.
Many players live in an affluent part of town known as Midtown-which is considered the capital of the "alternative lifestyle" scene. A scene that so desperately needs a voice like Sam's (as described in this Los Angeles Times article on Destee.com).
From a business standpoint, there are plenty of fans in the gay community that are die-hard fans (or even young athletes). But even those fans want what we all want...a productive pass-rusher!
Sam has the talent to be that individualm as most of us watched him get to many of the Southeastern Conference's best quarterbacks. His 11.5 sack-season culminated with him being named the SEC's co-defensive player of the year.
Sam being on an NFL roster wouldn't be a charity case. The guy could immediately step on the field and be one of the more effective players at his position (and would be the most talented on the Falcons' roster as it's presently constructed). He's a polished rusher that does a great job at converting initial quickness to power; he also has a plethora of finesse moves.
His stocky build lends itself to him winning the leverage game most of the time. Teams are currently over-thinking his prospects due to his size (6'2", 255 lbs) and being labeled a "tweener."
Those pundits did the same thing with one of the best players of this generation, Dwight Freeney (San Diego Chargers), who at 6'1", 268 lbs, shed that tweener label with his production. Sam has a lot of the same characteristics as Freeney, with a very similar playing style.
Here we see Sam doing what he does best—getting after the QB. Leverage is the name of the game in the trenches. That's why players like Michael Johnson (Tampa Bay Buccaneers) struggle to generate consistent production.
There's no substitute for being able to get underneath players and gain leverage. Here Sam used an arm-under move to power through the tackle. He has an innate ability to bend and contort his body to take ideal angles as well. Additionally, he has a piston-like motor that churns at a high-level. Players with that type of motor and work ethic tend to rub off on others.
Here's another look at Sam's arm-under move.
You can't tell me he doesn't have a similar look to New Orleans Saints' edge-rusher Junior Galette and Freeney. These guys are two of the very best in the game when it comes to out-leveraging offensive linemen.
Having a backfield terror like Sam is something Atlanta desperately needs on its roster. Acquiring a pass-rusher with the sixth-overall pick, or earlier, and following that up with acquiring Sam in the fourth round—where many draft pundits expect he will land—could give the Falcons one of the most exciting pass rushes in the league.
Can you imagine adding both Jadeveon Clowney (South Carolina) and Sam in one draft? Eventually veterans Osi Umenyiora and Kroy Biermann will have to be replaced. A combination of Clowney and Sam would represent a possible major upgrade in the pass-rush department—especially when you factor in Jonathan Massaquoi's future development.
Atlanta often employs the Wide-9 technique that is designed at getting edge-players in space. With the type of get-off move that Sam has, he'd definitely pile up sacks being played out in space like this. Playing Sam as a nickel pass-rusher in sub packages would be worth its weight in gold when you think about the manufactured-pressure game the Falcons so heavily rely on.
The Falcons' brass is very familiar with Sam as he was on their team in the Senior Bowl. While it was reported that he didn't have the best week of practices trying to adjust to playing outside linebacker for the first time in his career (per Chase Goodbread of NFL.com), he did end up with a sack during the game.
Also, pundits failed to mention the staff had him playing an off-the-ball linebacker opposed to a hybrid rusher. The general public is looking for ways to discredit Sam by harping on his sub-par performance at the NFL Scouting Combine, and by saying he piled up sacks against Vanderbilt, Florida and Arkansas State—where he collected three sacks each. But do you hear anyone discrediting the University of Buffalo's Khalil Mack for achieving sacks against Miami (Ohio), Kent State and Western Michigan?
Things that make you go hmm...
In addition, the Falcons have a strong locker room filled with mostly classy players—led by QB Matt Ryan and receiver Roddy White. Not to mention there were three players on the Falcons' roster from Missouri last season in Sean Weatherspoon, William Moore and Chase Coffman.
In our great city if you can play, you can stay. Most importantly, we love our successful athletes (almost unconditionally) as we're a booming city starving for success.
You'd be welcomed with open arms, minds and hearts here in Atlanta, Michael. But if you end up generating only two sacks a year, like former defensive end Jamaal Anderson, we'll turn on you quicker than zombies from the TV show The Walking Dead.
But do know you will be judged on how you perform between the lines, like everyone else in that locker room.
Note: By saying Michael Sam would thrive in Atlanta is not an indictment any other city. I happen to believe he will be successful no matter where he lands. This article simply highlights how great of a city Atlanta is, and how much of a need it has for a top-notch edge-player who can thrive in both the organic- and manufactured-pressure scheme.
Murf Baldwin covers the Alabama Crimson Tide for Roll 'Bama Roll in addition to being a staff writer for The Falcoholic. He previously covered the Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints for Bleacher Report. Are you not entertained? Follow Murf on Twitter.