For Michael Sam, it was the right town. The right time. The right team.
And the wrong position group.
Sam, the first openly gay prospect taken in the NFL Draft, was among the roster cuts announced Saturday by the St. Louis Rams as the team whittled its active roster down to the required 53 to start the 2014 regular season.
"I was rooting for Michael," Rams coach Jeff Fisher said at a news conference Saturday, adding that there would be "no challenges whatsoever" for any NFL team that might pick up Sam on waivers.
"There’s no challenge with respect to Mike Sam," Fisher said. "He’s not about drawing attention to himself. He kept his head down and worked, and you can’t ask anything more out of any player, for that matter."
NFL teams had until 3 p.m. Central time Saturday to pare their rosters to 53, and Sam, taken with the 249th pick in May’s draft, fell on the wrong side of the shuffle, the odd man out on a club absolutely loaded with good, young defensive linemen.
Sam responded to the news publicly on Twitter:
I want to thank the entire Rams organization and the city of St. Louis for giving me this tremendous opportunity and allowing me to (1/2)
"I’m very confident I’m going to be on a team — the Rams or any other team in the NFL," Sam had told reporters in Miami on Thursday night after recording a team-high six tackles in a 14-13 loss to the Dolphins.
And he still might be. Sam showed enough in the preseason — 11 tackles and three sacks in four games — to allay most doubts that he could play at this level; what remains to be seen is how (and where) the former University of Missouri star’s short-term future shapes up. Sam is eligible to be claimed by any of the other 31 teams in the NFL, but if he isn’t snapped up, the native Texan will become a prime candidate to hook on with the Rams’ practice squad this fall.
Ultimately, it was a numbers game for Sam in the preseason, one that was always going to be an uphill battle. First-team defensive ends Robert Quinn and Chris Long are among the best at their position in the NFL, and St. Louis had eight defensive linemen stacked up ahead of Sam on the depth chart — although top backups Eugene Sims and William Hayes have been on the mend this month.
With Fisher not considering Sam to be a fit on special teams — he has said defensive ends rarely match the special teams mold — the 6-foot-2, 261-pound rookie was going to have to make an impression on defense, and quickly.
Though practice reports on him were mixed, in preseason games Sam flashed the hustle that won him SEC co-Defensive Player of the Year honors last fall. The ex-Tiger was credited with 11 tackles (10 solo) and a team-best three sacks in four exhibitions but was overshadowed at times by fellow rookie defensive lineman Ethan Westbrooks, an undrafted free agent out of West Texas A&M who led all Rams players in the preseason with 11 solo tackles (12 total) and wound up second in sacks (two).
Fisher had kept his cards tucked close to the chest when pressed on the competition between Sam and Westbrooks, even after the Dolphins game. But many observers gave the overall edge to the latter, given his size (6-4, 267), motor and ability to play multiple positions along the line.
Watch a replay of the Rams-Dolphins preseason game at 7 p.m. Sunday on FOX Sports Midwest.
If the breakdown of Sam by player-evaluation site ProFootballFocus.com is any barometer, Sam earning a roster spot would have been something of an upset. Sam’s preseason PFF grade was a solid-but-unspectacular plus-0.6 on 133 snaps, including a surprising minus-0.4 rating in pass-rushing situations. That was the fifth-best overall grade of any St. Louis defensive lineman this month.
Westbrooks, meanwhile, had been hailed in recent weeks as something of a revelation, and PFF’s statistics bear that out: a plus-15.0 grade on 156 snaps topped all Rams defensive linemen, as did his plus-8.1 grade rushing the passer.
But what Sam might have lacked in quantity, relative to Westbrooks, he made up for in terms of on-field swagger; his most notable takedown this month was of fellow rookie sensation (and former SEC rival) Johnny Manziel on Aug. 23 in the Rams’ 33-14 win at Cleveland. After a fourth-quarter sack of the Browns’ first-round draft pick, Sam offered up an impersonation of Johnny Football’s signature "Show Me the Money" hand gesture before launching into his usual celebratory routine.
Sam wound up sacking Manziel twice in that game. But it didn’t make enough of an impression for him to stick.
Of the two, Sam probably has a better shot of clearing waivers — being passed up by the other 31 teams — than Westbrooks would have if the Rams had cut him. As such, Sam remains a candidate to be signed to the Rams’ practice squad.
Bottom line: Sam had a good August. Westbrooks had a better one.