As a senior at Missouri last fall, Michael Sam gained gridiron acclaim en route to being named the SEC Defensive Player of the Year following a year during which he anchored Mizzou's run to the conference title game. In February of this year, Sam's disclosure about his sexuality should have been a trivial revelation if it weren't for the fact that he was about to become the first and only openly gay athlete in the history of pro football.
Unfortunately, on the day he returned to his alma mater for their season opener against South Dakota State, Sam was waived by the Rams, but not before making it interesting. I jokingly called his sack of Johnny Manziel last week, "the most important sack in preseason history" (from a social media perspective), but Sam was actually quite an effective edge rusher in his four tune-up games.
After missing the final cut for the St. Louis Rams' ninth defensive lineman spot, Sam's path to making an NFL roster has reached an impasse.
For the second time this year, there are questions swirling about which franchise would swoop Sam up on waivers by noon ET Sunday. If he's signed off of waivers, it would have to be as a member of the active roster. If Sam goes unclaimed, he'll have the opportunity to latch onto a practice squad and the expectation is that he will stick with the Rams.
Most teams keep between eight and nine defensive lineman and although a 10th is possible, it would have been overkill at a position of strength. The attention Sam has attracted has carried over to the undrafted rookie he beat out. In a world without Sam's disclosure, West Texas A&M's Ethan Westbrooks would have been just another anonymous name on a three-deep depth chart.
Instead, he became the obstacle between Sam and the final leg on his journey to make history. Westbrooks was actually given a higher signing bonus than Sam ($50,000 including a $20,000 signing bonus and $30,000 guarantee to Sam's $45,896) back in May. It's splitting hairs, but clearly Westbrooks was a priority to their front office immediately after the draft. He also didn't disappoint during the preseason on defense and special teams.
This was less about what Sam is or what he did do. In Sam's shadow for nearly four months, Westbrooks was just a monster truck in a junkyard out there for four preseason games. The performances go beyond Westbrooks' 12 tackles and two sacks vs. Sam's 10.5 tackles and three sacks.
For context, Westbrooks' grade of +15.0 was the best of any 4-3 DE in the league. The next highest was NYG's Damontre Moore at +7.1. #Rams— RamsAddiction (@RamsAddiction) August 29, 2014
Westbrooks finishes the preseason w/ a combined +15.0 grade. The next highest #Rams defender? CB Darren Woodard w/ a +4.7.— RamsAddiction (@RamsAddiction) August 29, 2014
Sam won't be doin' the Young Money sign anytime soon if he's not on an active roster by Monday. Financially speaking, the difference between the practice squad and the active roster for Sam is quite substantial. On the active roster, Sam would have been due $420,000 as opposed to the $107,100 accumulated earning the minimum salary of $6,300 per week.
Ultimately, the coverage over Sam's release has irked the legion of football fans who wish his sexuality were kept under wraps--ignorant to their role in stigmatizing homosexual athletes throughout history. Ask Kerry Rhodes if nobody cares.
Here's the thing for those who are actually confused and not just masking latent homophobia. People care about figures who shatter barriers and create new precedents. We've already witnessed one instance of a college basketball starter at a major program admitting that the positive reaction to Jason Collins' coming out was an inspiration to help him lift the burden of his sexuality and compelled him to come out to his teammates.
While the media "circus" attached to Sam dissuaded a few franchises from drafting Sam, the last few months has debunked the idea of him as a distraction.
The Dallas Cowboys' frighteningly atrocious defensive line could use some new blood and Jerry Jones welcomes the media crush that would accompany Sam in Dallas.
Cowboys should claim Michael Sam. Don't care that he's a tweener. Do Cowboys have better healthy edge rusher for nickel right now?— Tim MacMahon (@espn_macmahon) August 30, 2014
However, the Cowboys removed themselves from the running just before the deadline by trading a 2015 seventh rounder for Tenessee Titans defensive end Lavell Edwards. Edwards is their 11th defensive lineman although defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence will be placed on the injured reserve to start the season.. If the Cowboys could field all 11 at once there may be hope for their porous defense. Instead, the Cowboys will search for a diamond in the rough.
Seventeen teams run a base 3-4 defense, but according to NFL Network's insider Ian Rapaport, the Rams, Bears, Giants and Ravens were the four teams that were ready to bring him in as an undrafted free agent before the draft's third day.
The Giants line is shaky, but they seem set with defensive ends Jason Pierre-Paul, Mathias Kiwanuka, Robert Ayers, Damontre Moore and Kerry Wynn.
In a 3-4, Sam would be forced to play outside linebacker, which is a role he would struggle mightily with, if you use his dreadfully bad combine performance as a barometer. The Ravens roster already carries 10 linebackers, therefore his presence on the active roster won't be required.
The 4-3 based Bears held onto six defensive ends and four tackles so throw them out of the running.
At this point, Sam's next destination is up in the air, but one thing is certain, Sam on an active roster would be good for NFL business for multiple reasons. In addition to being beneficial for public relations, Sam's Rams jersey was the league's seventh highest-seller. The jersey of a team that puts him on the active roster would hypothetically fly off the rack even quicker.
Sam's career has hit a speed bump, but unlike linebacker James Harrison, it's not over.