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2014 NFL Draft: Michael Sam has qualities Raiders covet

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Jamie Squire

If I told you there was a player who was the defensive player of the year in the toughest conference in college football that might pique your interest. That alone would put a player high on a lot of team's list. And if that player was a pass rushing defensive end -- the Raiders' glaring need at the position - it would certainly lead to some further investigation.

That player is Michael Sam. He was the leader on defense for the Missouri Tigers. His strong 2013 season led to him being named SEC Co-Defensive Player of the Year and Missouri went on to win the Cotton Bowl. His merits and play on the field stand on their own and he is currently rated as a round three prospect for the upcoming NFL Draft.

Those accomplishments are certainly impressive and enticing but the Raiders went down that road very recently with an SEC Defensive Player of the Year who they drafted at a position of glaring need. That player was Rolando McClain and he went a lot higher than the third round. He was the eighth overall pick in the first round.

The problem with McClain was he had all the talent in the world but all the character problems to match. He lasted less than three season in the NFL before his off-field problems and bad attitude became too much. He hasn't played a down since the Raiders suspended him after week ten of the 2012 season.

The new regime made strong character a priority with the players they drafted and acquired and quickly weeded out the problem players who were here when they took over. McClain now stands as a cautionary tale and living proof of why character is such a high priority for Reggie McKenzie.

Michael Sam has proven himself to be a phenomenal talent on the football field, worthy of being chosen in the upper portion of the NFL draft even before his character was to be dissected by NFL scouts at the combine, and his pro day, and in the months leading up to the draft.

In the meantime, Sam is already showing he has a rare level of character and courage -- on Sunday, he officially came out as being gay. He is the first such player to ever come out as openly gay and the announcement has shaken the sports world.

Former NBA player, Jason Collins, came out as gay last year and it made headlines, but his career in the NBA was over by then. With the idea of having a gay player in a locker room as still being widely taboo, Collins' announcement, while important, was still not enough to make any real difference. The predominant thought was that it would take an active player coming out as gay to really gauge the level of acceptance among professional athletes and organizations.

One such reasoning given for the lack of any current NFL player to come out was the fear of dividing a locker room or creating an unwanted distraction. It's a subject some Bay Area sports stars, including the Raiders own Marcel Reece, broached in their PSA "If you can play, you can play."

I posted this video on this site when it was released and received a great deal of backlash. Even while current players such as the Raiders' immensely popular Pro Bowl fullback was making strong statements saying they would accept a player regardless of their sexual orientation, there are many who are still not on board.

It's also clear based on the mixed reports from anonymous GM's that there is a lot of trepidation about adding an openly gay player to their team.

It makes it all the more impressive that this young man made this known. He is risking everything.

This isn't an attention grab either. As detailed in an Out Sports article on Sam, his Missouri teammates have known about this since last summer. Even that wasn't a big announcement.

One day, in a team building exercise, Tigers' coach Gary Pinkel asked each player to say something their teammates may not know about them. And when it was Sam's turn to speak, he told his entire team he was gay.

That admission should act as an experiment of sorts from which the NFL could learn. The entire Missouri Tigers football team knew Sam was gay. And they didn't care. They knew this fact prior to last season, played alongside him followed him as the leader of that defense all season, and not a single one of those players uttered a peep about it to the media.

Likewise, when some in the media caught wind of it, they didn't jump all over it immediately either. They waited to break the story until Sam wanted it to be released - a week after all college and NFL football had ended and three months before the draft. Distraction? Not so much.

Speaking of distraction, remember when the Raiders signed punter Chris Kluwe last off-season? Kluwe was well-known for being outspoken in favor of several causes. One of which was Ray Guy's decades long exclusion from the Hall of Fame - a plight which finally ended with Guy being announced as part of the 2014 Hall of Fame class.

The more controversial cause for which Kluwe spoke out was gay rights. It was a subject he would answer freely to anyone who asked as well as attending several events before and after the Raiders signed him. Did that scare the Raiders away from signing him? Nope. They needed competition at the punter position. Kluwe provided that. End of story.

Seriously, when have the Raiders ever cared about controversy? We're talking about the Al Davis led, barrier breaking, outcast/misfit Ellis Island of the sports world. The organization that had the first Hispanic head coach (Tom Flores), the first black head coach (Art Shell), and the first female CEO (Amy Trask). The team that had such characters as Lyle Alzado, Lester Hayes, Ted Hendricks, and John Matuszak just to name a few.

In the end it comes down to two simple questions:

What do the Raiders care about and what do they need?

They care about winning, they care about strong character, they care about passion, they don't care about controversy, and they need pass rushers. If the Raiders think Michael Sam can provide that, nothing else matters.

And if they break another barrier in the process, all the better.