The New England Patriots defense isn’t talent-starved by any means, but there were areas that needed to be addressed entering the 2018 NFL Draft. Arguably the highest need was obtaining a linebacker that can cover and space and move sideline to sideline. After watching 177 other prospects find homes, New England selected Christian Sam to fill that void.
Breaking Down Christian Sam’s Role on the New England Patriots
Typically, Bill Belichick prefers his linebackers like the prototypical 1980s middle linebacker: big, strong, and a solid north-south tackler. It’s an added bonus if they can go sideline to sideline, but the main focus for these linebackers is stuffing the run and punishing quarterbacks with blitzes up the middle.
Belichick’s best linebackers, like Dont’a Hightower, Jerod Mayo, and Tedy Bruschi, were able to do everything that was required of them. However, the depth usually featured one-dimensional run stuffers, like Brandon Spikes and Elandon Roberts.
That’s where Sam differs from his predecessors. At 6’1”, 244 pounds, Sam is undersized relative to the prototypical Patriots linebacker. However, what he lacks in size he more than makes up for in the passing game.
Sam excels in coverage, so much so that he was almost converted to a defensive back in college. While he spent his whole career at linebacker, his specialty was dropping back and matching up with backs and tight ends. The Patriots struggled all season to defend running backs out of the backfield, and Sam’s presence should help to fix that problem. One could make the argument that he is already the second or third best coverage linebacker on the roster.
Why Did He Fall to the Sixth Round?
So if Sam is the cure for what ails the Patriots defense, why was he available this late in the draft? All the “sure things” in the draft are off the board by this time, so what caused Sam’s stock to fall so low?
For one, he’s not the best run defender. While his smaller frame makes him a good coverage linebacker, it also means he can be pushed around at the line of scrimmage. Smaller players like him can succeed in the NFL, but it requires refined technique. Right now, he doesn’t have that.
Additionally, his effort level and love of the game has been brought into question. Several draft profiles of his claim that he doesn’t like to practice, and isn’t a natural leader. Basically, he doesn’t have the passion you’d want in a linebacker.
For what it’s worth, Sam has vehemently denied these claims. After being drafted, Sam held a phone conference, and the topic of his work ethic came up. Sam denied hating practice, saying that “I’m a guy that, when I practice, I take pride in practice because I know it will prepare me for the game.”
The fact that Belichick selected him at all strongly implies that the practice worries are a non-issue. Nobody devotes more time to football than Belichick, and if he thought that Sam didn’t have the passion to succeed, he wouldn’t have drafted him.
His play in the run game is a bit more worrisome. As mentioned earlier, Sam’s technique isn’t good enough to compensate for his lack of size. He won’t be able to win in the trenches, or set the edge. His instincts against the run aren’t quite what you’d want either. Quite frankly, he’s nothing more than a situational player at this point in his career.
Last Word on Christian Sam
That being said, his role is still vital to the success of the squad. The Patriots should have one of the better secondaries in the league to compliment a decent front seven. Finding a linebacker capable of covering running backs out of the backfield eliminates the last glaring weakness on the team. With Sam, the Patriots may have found that linebacker.