Michael Sam has outperformed expectations for St. Louis at camp. But the NFL's first openly gay player might be headed to the practice squad instead of the 53-man roster due to the equally impressive play of another long-shot prospect
Michael Sam has beaten the odds before, and he’ll probably have to do it again to make the Rams’ 53-man roster. Entering the Rams’ final preseason game Thursday night at Miami, the most likely scenario is for Sam, the first openly gay player trying to make an NFL roster, to begin the season on the club’s 10-man practice squad, not the team’s active roster.
Likely, but definitely not certain. Sam has played well in the first three preseason games, and if that continues Thursday night with a very good pass-rushing performance, he may force coach Jeff Fisher and GM Les Snead to keep one more defensive lineman than they would have envisioned at the start of training camp, and to go lighter at another position group on the active roster. It’s going to be a close call when Snead, Fisher and their staff sit down Friday to pare down the roster.
This is not about what Sam, the seventh-round defensive end from Missouri, hasn’t done. It’s about what free-agent defensive lineman Ethan Westbrooks from West Texas A&M has done—and about the depth of the St. Louis defensive line. The Rams came to camp with a solid core of eight defensive linemen likely to make the roster, and planning to keep either eight, nine or 10 on the final roster. The solid eight are still solid. Westbrooks charged into the lead for the ninth spot early in camp and has been outstanding in practices and games. Sam is a worthy challenger. Keeping 10 would be a stretch, but Sam’s play has now made that a tough call.
Sam has three sacks and three more pressures or quarterback hits in his 82 snaps during the preseason, and he’s out-performed what the Rams had projected for him—in part because he’s quicker off the edge at 257 now than he was at 270 as a college player last fall. When the preseason began the prevailing feeling was there was probably one spot on St. Louis’s deep defensive line for a prospect, and perhaps one on the practice squad. Westbrooks has one sack and seven hits or pressures.
Early in camp, the three leading candidates were Westbrooks, Sam, and second-year defensive end Sammy Brown, an undrafted free agent from the University of Houston in 2012. Westbrooks got unprecedented money when he signed his free-agent contract, leading many to believe it was he, not Sam, whom some in the Rams’ organization wanted to take with the 249th pick in the May draft. But Sam was the selection, and the undrafted Westbrooks was signed very soon after the seventh round ended. The Rams gave Westbrooks a $20,000 signing bonus (very high for an undrafted player) and a $30,000 salary guarantee. The $50,000 in guarantees was actually more than Sam’s $45,896. That was the first clue as to how much the Rams valued Westbrooks coming into camp.
More Rams: The MMQB’s St. Louis training camp page
According to NFL analytics website Pro Football Focus, Westbrooks is the highest-rated 4-3 defensive end in the NFL this preseason. That has to be taken in context, because he’s played against the lesser lights in much of his game action so far. But Sam has too. Westbrooks has quickness and a power move that the Rams think can translate to the NFL game. He dominated at the lower level of college ball, getting 26.5 sacks and 19 more tackles for loss in the 2012 and ’13 seasons at West Texas A&M. He’s stronger than Sam, and right now the coaching staff appears to favor him for a spot on the final 53-man roster.
But this is a fluid story, and things could change based on performances Thursday night. It’s a huge game for Westbrooks and Sam.
Sam’s play has been strong enough to merit keeping him on the 53-man roster. If the Rams decide to waive him in the cutdown from 75 to 53 Saturday and try to bring him back to the practice squad on Sunday night or Monday, Sam would first be eligible to be claimed by any of the other 31 teams in the league. I doubt another team would claim him—that’s nothing but a gut feeling. My guess is he’d end up on the Rams’ practice squad, and either be a regular practice player honing his craft and waiting for an injury to a defensive end, or practicing and getting ready for a presumed invitation to Rams’ training camp in 2015.
There’s not much drama, ever, in final preseason games, which are used by most teams to determine the last few spots on the roster. But in St. Louis, every snap for Sam and Westbrooks will be watched closely—and should be. An active roster spot could be up for grabs if Sam plays extremely well against the Dolphins. Remember, injuries are also a factor when rosters are cut, as is special-teams play. So watch it all for the Rams in Miami.
And now for your email this week:
THE PRESEASON SCHEDULE IS DONE INDEPENDENT OF THE REGULAR-SEASON SKED. Peter, love the work you and The MMQB crew have been putting out. A great mix of style, content, and subject matter. Quick question for you: The Chargers and Cardinals play each other in Week 4 of the preseason and Week 1 of the regular season. How was this decided? Seems odd.
—Peter, Austin, Texas
The preseason schedule is made each year independent of the regular-season schedule. Howard Katz, who draws up the schedule for the league, doesn’t care who plays whom in the preseason. And this is the third year in the past four that Arizona and San Diego have met in the preseason—so I don’t think there’s anything sinister or strange about it. Just coincidental.
I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT YOU’RE TALKING ABOUT, SIR. To Peter King: Your take on Peyton Manning endangering the livelihood of yet another teammate/receiver in Wes Welker was lame and it is what infuriates me about the jock-sniffing nature of veteran media guys like yourself. This is a major and really interesting story—Peyton Manning ruins careers of receivers, and it goes uncovered. He frequently puts them in danger by leading them into crowds, and often in situations (like a preseason game) where there is ZERO benefit.
—Rob Adler, Medford, Mass.
I didn’t have a take, Rob. What I wrote in my column was only about Welker: “Have to agree with the mob on this one: If I’m Wes Welker, I am seriously considering retiring after another concussion. You want to have a good life after football. How many more head hits can one man take?’’ But if you would like my take, here it is:
Being a slot receiver is a hazardous job. You play in the middle of the field with big safeties and linebackers taking cracks at you. The quarterback’s job is to throw to the open man, and on the play in question, Manning thought Welker was the open man. He was—the pass was complete. I have heard people in the wake of the play wonder why Manning threw to Welker. Well, because he was open. The play gained nine yards. If you think Manning shouldn’t have thrown it to Welker, then maybe you think—and maybe it is valid—that smaller guys shouldn’t play the slot, and only tight ends or very big receivers should. But I would maintain that the collision of D.J. Swearinger’s shoulder with the head of any man at that rate of speed would have endangered the player and quite possibly concussed the receiver, no matter the size.
ON NOT PICKING SEATTLE. They told the Seattle Seahawks that they couldn't win with a rah-rah, college-style head coach. They told the Seattle Seahawks that they couldn't win with a quarterback who is only 5-10 5/8 tall. They told the Seattle Seahawks that they couldn't win by emphasizing defense and the running game in a pass-happy league. Look what happened.
"History is the reason" why you aren't picking Seattle? This team has spent the last four years proving that they make history irrelevant. 2014 will be no different.
—Will Harrison, Everett, Wash.
Could be. That’s why they play the games.
ON TINGELHOFF. Great article/segment on Jerry Kramer/Mick Tingelhoff. Your column is the first thing I read every Monday morning, even when I've been deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq. I looked up the 2012 article you referenced, and you wrote that back in the 60s the Pro Bowl meant something. Well, if it did, then why is Chuck Howley not in the Hall of Fame? Chuck Howley’s statistics:
Six Pro Bowl selection (1965, 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969, 1971).
Five Associated Press First-team All-Pro selection (1966, 1967, 1968, 1969, 1970).
Has he ever been considered by the HOF Seniors Committee?
Good email, Keith, and thanks for reading. I’m not on the seniors committee, but I do know there has been sentiment for Howley over the years, and a strong one at that. You should write a letter to Joe Horrigan at the Hall of ask that it be forwarded to the seniors for their consideration. His address: Joe Horrigan, Pro Football Hall of Fame, 2121 George Halas Drive NW, Canton, OH 44708.