In the end, it wasn't Michael Sam's sexual orientation or any attendant "distractions" that led to his release from the St. Louis Rams on Saturday — it was the efforts of an undrafted teammate from a Division II school that pushed Sam out of the Rams' defensive line rotation, regarded by many as the deepest in the NFL. Sam, who was attempting to become the league's first openly gay player on an active roster, was selected in the seventh round of the 2014 draft out of Missouri after winning the SEC Co-defensive player of the year award in 2013 with 10.5 sacks and 18 tackles for loss. Some speculated that his coming out affected his draft stock, but Sam didn't project well as a pure pass-rusher at the next level. He is more of a strong-side run-stopping end.
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And when the Rams signed West Texas A&M end Ethan Westbrooks to a free-agent contract, things started to get more complicated for Sam. Westbrooks, who had spent two years in junior college before blowing up Division II and getting two sacks in the East-West Shrine Game, simply looked more stout at the point of attack against the run and the pass. Westbrooks was Pro Football Focus' top-ranked 4-3 defensive end through the preseason, and a closer look at his tape showed a player who was extremely fast off the snap and used his strength and agility to make plays on a consistent basis. He picked up his second sack of the preseason in St. Louis' finale against the Miami Dolphins, despite the fact that he was double-teamed most of the time.
“It looked as if Ethan was making plays every time I looked, but I didn’t really see anything good nor bad out of Mike,” Rams head coach Jeff Fisher said after the game. “We’ll look at the tape. But [Sam] played hard, and he got a lot of snaps.”
Sam amassed six tackles in the game. He had dropped weight to make himself faster off the edge, and flashed that from time to time, but Westbrooks was a better player and a better fit for Fisher's defense.
To be sure, Sam's release had nothing to do with his sexual orientation. When former NFL coach and current analyst Tony Dungy said that he would not have drafted Sam because things would not have gone totally smoothly in the team's locker room, the Rams were quick to defend their player.
"All of us in the draft room were aware of the magnitude of the decision, how it would be a pivot in history," general manager Les Snead said. "Michael is the first, but somewhere in the future, guess what? He’s just going to be a name that a kid in middle school has got to memorize. We won’t think it’s anything special because it will be normal."
Rams COO Kevin Demoff added that, "if you’re going to take a leadership position by drafting Michael, you have to expect the good and the bad. We’re prepared for it, and I think we’ll shine through it."
Sam said after the Miami game that he's confident he'll make an NFL roster somewhere, and he's got the look of an NFL player who may just have to start as a backup or on the practice squad. But there's a place for him in the NFL, and he'll eventually find it.
"There's no challenge with respect to Mike Sam," Fisher said after the cut was announced. "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."