The biggest storyline entering Day 3 of the 2014 NFL draft was far and away Michael Sam's future. Would the NFL's first openly gay prospect hear his name called or would he enter the ranks of the undrafted?
The St. Louis Rams ended the suspense in the seventh round, selecting Sam at pick No. 249. There were 256 total draft choices made this year.
"There's going to be a little extra attention for a couple days, but Michael's the co-SEC Defensive Player of the Year," Rams head coach Jeff Fisher told the NFL Network's Rich Eisen during an interview moments after the pick was announced. "We're looking forward to this opportunity. We have a very mature team; we're not going to let any distractions affect this football team."
On Feb. 9, Sam announced he was gay. "I'm Michael Sam. I'm a football player and I'm gay," he told The New York Times.
Multiple sources told Sports Illustrated he came out to his Missouri teammates just prior to the 2013 season. Sources also told SI that Sam strongly considered making an announcement late last summer and was willing to play his senior season as an openly homosexual athlete. (He decided against it at the last minute.)
At the scouting combine in February, Sam said he wanted the attention focused on his football abilities, not his sexual orientation. "I just wish you guys would just see me as Michael Sam the football player," he said, "instead of Michael Sam the gay football player.''
As Don Banks wrote from Indianapolis, Sam's sexuality represents a new threshold for the league, but it won't be a seismic change.
"I think it's widely known that every locker room has a number of gay individuals,'' Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff said. "Quite honestly, it speaks to the evolution of acceptance in our society. I really believe the NFL is quite evolved. It continues to be very progressive and out on the front end of the curve in many ways, as far as sport and as far as approaches. Our commissioner [Roger Goodell] is out in front of that. We take his lead. This league has been a really good league as far as being open about the next wave, the next generation, whether it's technology or whether it's acceptance."
Now that Sam has broken down one barrier, he faces a new challenge: making the Rams roster. That task certainly will not be an easy one as he landed among one of the deepest and most talented defensive front sevens in the league -- made even more so by a Round 1 selection of Pittsburgh DT Aaron Donald. St. Louis has Robert Quinn and Chris Long starting on the edges; William Hayes (five sacks last season) and Eugene Sims (two) also return to add depth at the defensive end spots, which is where Sam played at Missouri and presumably where the Rams will test him out during training camp.
Part of why the 6-foot-2, 261-pound Sam was considered a Day 3 prospect in the first place was that he landed between the prototype for DEs and outside linebackers, and he actually appeared to be a better fit for a 3-4 defense. Sam struggled through a poor combine showing, too: 4.9-second 40, 17 bench-press reps and disappointing times in multiple other drills.
His production at the college level pushed back against those numbers to keep Sam on the board as a viable draft prospect.
"I don't have any concerns whatsoever," Fisher said. "We drafted a good football player."
Thank you to the St. Louis Rams and the whole city of St. Louis. I'm using every ounce of this to achieve greatness!! pic.twitter.com/QESdOJVzsw — Michael Sam (@MikeSamFootball) May 10, 2014