Around a year ago, St. Louis Rams defensive end Michael Sam stood in front of his collegiate teammates at the University of Missouri and told them he was gay.
Since then, quite a few things have transpired. In addition to helping Missouri garner 12 wins in 2013, Sam won SEC Defensive Player of the Year, an SEC East title and a Cotton Bowl championship over the Oklahoma State Cowboys.
To many, that would seem like a star-studded year. Yet, to Sam, he knows there is still plenty of work that needs to be done in 2014. Aside from making St. Louis’ 53-man roster, he wants to become a regular part of the Rams’ defensive line rotation.
As you can imagine, both of those things present their own challenges. Why? Because he has fierce competition for the last defensive end spot on the depth chart. Plus, head coach Jeff Fisher may decide to only keep eight defensive linemen instead of nine.
If that ends up being the case, Sam would have to then beat out William Hayes or Eugene Sims. Beating out Hayes would be considered a stretch given Hayes’ talent level, but the same can’t be said about Sims.
Per Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Sims has struggled mightily the past two years. On 807 snaps, the fifth-year pro has amassed a minus-19.6 grade overall. That is one of the worst two-year grades of any defensive player on the St. Louis roster.
Nevertheless, before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s tackle a burning question and examine what we should expect from Sam’s preseason debut in St. Louis.
While Michael Sam was No. 6 in NFL jersey sales over the last 3 1/2 months, the NFLPA notes he was #41 in overall player merchandise— darren rovell (@darrenrovell) July 22, 2014
Even though Sam has never played a down in an NFL game before, the first thing we should expect is excitement from the Rams’ home crowd. I say this based on the fact that the rookie defensive end has the sixth-highest selling NFL jersey, likely thanks in large part to those who support the gay and lesbian community.
I also say this since Sam is a local product who (as I mentioned before) played collegiately at Missouri. And it’s not like the university is a long trip from the Edward Jones Dome.
According to Google Maps, Colombia, Missouri, is only 125 miles from the dome. That’s about a two-and-a-half hour drive, which is nothing considering some Rams season-ticket holders travel from Arkansas to attend home games at the ED.
The second thing we should expect from Sam’s debut is a leaner physique. Per Nick Wagoner of ESPN.com:
Rams DE Michael Sam said he's lost 13 pounds since OTAs. Down to 257 pounds, passed conditioning test and said he's faster and stronger.— Nick Wagoner (@nwagoner) July 22, 2014
Slimming down should do Sam plenty of good. Not only will he be more agile rushing the passer, he will be able to help on special teams coverage units as well.
Since Sam didn’t play on special teams coverage units at Missouri, it’s easy to commend him for doing whatever it takes to make the Rams’ 53-man roster.
No, that doesn’t mean Sam is now guaranteed a roster spot because of his willing nature, yet it does mean he could use it to edge out fellow rookie defensive end Ethan Westbrooks.
Despite Westbrooks' flashes in training camp, Sam had the better start to camp and is currently higher on St. Louis’ depth chart, per Ourlads.com.
Sam’s spot ahead of Westbrooks on the depth chart isn’t permanent, but he will get every opportunity during the preseason to make the final cut.
Lastly, what we should expect from Sam’s preseason debut is over-scrutiny from the media—and Sam perhaps enjoying the spotlight a little bit too much.
Some say Sam has changed in a matter of months. Here’s what his former roommate and Pittsburgh Steelers tight end Eric Waters had to say about Sam enjoying his newfound fame, via John Breech of CBSSports.com: “He is a nice guy, but I will say the truth: A little bit of him has changed. It is really not my situation to speculate at this point, but he is not the same Michael Sam anymore.”
“Just the way he acts and carries himself,” Waters said, via Breech. “I was watching the NFL Network the other day and I think it was Marshall Faulk who said that he keeps referring to himself in the third person as Michael Sam this, Michael Sam that. That's not the same guy we knew back when we were living together. He is not the same fun-loving, joking guy that really didn't care about stuff like publicity.”
Will Michael Sam play well enough in the preseason to make St. Louis' 53-man roster?
As far as over-scrutiny from the media goes, it will be interesting to see how hard people come down on Sam if he doesn’t perform well on Friday night.
Additionally, it will be especially compelling to watch sportswriters fall all over themselves if Sam does exceed expectations. Will they anoint him as the next great pass-rusher, or will they write a column about how he deserved to be a fourth-round pick instead of a seventh-round pick? That’s the one-million dollar question.
If Sam does not perform well, the good news is he will still have three more preseason games to play after St. Louis’ contest against the New Orleans Saints.
And for rookies, the more exhibition games they can play, the better as they adjust to life at the highest level of competition in football.