ST. LOUIS — As seniors at Missouri a year ago, E.J. Gaines and Michael Sam worried mostly about how they would lead a defense expected to struggle once again in the mighty SEC.
This fall, they’ve been fighting for roster spots with the St. Louis Rams, and Gaines looks to be in good shape to not only make the team, but maybe earn a starting cornerback spot after Trumaine Johnson sprained an MCL last Saturday. Meanwhile, the media spotlight on Sam is getting brighter again with four days until final cuts, even though the defensive end hasn’t been available to publicly address it.
"I talk to Mike every day," said Gaines, a sixth-round pick and former captain at Mizzou. "Us both being rookies, it’s tough. We talk about cuts and we try not to think about it and everything."
There were no surprises among the Rams’ 12 cuts and other roster moves, which included putting quarterback Sam Bradford on injured reserve, to get down to 75 players by Tuesday afternoon. Even the quarterback’s devastating ACL tear suffered Saturday took a backseat to discussion of whether Sam can become the first openly gay player to make a regular-season NFL roster.
His sexual preference remained the unspoken driver for the conversation as coach Jeff Fisher answered a barrage of questions relating to Sam’s ability and whether he’ll be able to beat out undrafted free agent Ethan Westbrooks following one of the team’s hottest practices this year. As usual, Fisher praised the work of both and remained coy as to who might have the inside track or how many defensive linemen the Rams might carry into the season opener against Minnesota.
The veteran coach also made another attempt to debunk a couple of the more reasonable myths about the former SEC Defensive Player of the Year. Many believed the 6-foot-2, 261-pound rookie would be considered a "tweener" and some wondered if his ticket to the NFL might be with the special teams unit.
"It’s really unfair to ask him or to have expectations of him to be productive at that because you just don’t — as a defensive end you’re not asked to do those things," Fisher said. "He’s a defensive end, not a linebacker, and it’s rare that you get a defensive end that’s going to go out and contribute on all four of your core special teams."
Sam left little doubt he’s capable of contributing on defense last Saturday, when he sacked fellow rookie Johnny Manziel twice in a preseason game at Cleveland. Fisher mentioned in Sunday’s press conference he would have liked to get Sam a few more snaps, but nothing has been said regarding his playing time in Thursday’s final preseason game at Miami.
St. Louis’ defensive line depth has always made Sam’s task an even bigger challenge, and it’s hard to see any other ends getting on the field much behind Chris Long and Robert Quinn, whom Long called "the best at his position in the game" on Tuesday. Quinn led the NFC with 19 sacks a year ago and said more production will be the key to Sam staying in the league.
"He’s a hard worker," Quinn said. "He has a lot on his shoulders. He’s going out there trying to get better each and every day, asking Chris and Will (Hayes) because they’re on his side, ‘How can I get better at my technique?’ Those sorts of things."
Long had high praise for Sam as well, though he made sure to note the other young defensive linemen have been just as impressive. It’s clear Sam could use a few more highlights Thursday night, the final chance to show his progression since the start of camp.
"When we first got here, it seemed like he was a little hesitant on a lot of the plays, just like all of us, thinking too much," Gaines said. "So now that he knows the playbook and he’s getting out there, you can tell that he’s comfortable and he’s making a lot more plays."
Gaines said his friend’s attitude and work ethic have remained consistent as he fights to make the team along with the rest of the rookie class. Perhaps the only difference is that even if it’s not on next week’s 53-man roster, Sam’s name won’t be forgotten.
You can follow Luke Thompson on Twitter @FS_LukeT or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.