Michael Sam's quest to become the first openly gay player in NFL history has hit its first roadblock. Sam was among the last players released by the St. Louis Rams on Saturday, as they announced their final roster cuts to the 53-man maximum.
Sam reacted to the news on Twitter:
The most worthwhile things in life rarely come easy, this is a lesson I've always known. The journey continues.— Michael Sam (@MichaelSamNFL) August 30, 2014
Sam also thanked the Rams organization:
I want to thank the entire Rams organization and the city of St. Louis for giving me this tremendous opportunity and allowing me to (1/2)— Michael Sam (@MichaelSamNFL) August 30, 2014
show I can play at this level. I look forward to continuing to build on the progress I made here toward a long and successful career (2/2)— Michael Sam (@MichaelSamNFL) August 30, 2014
A seventh-round pick out of Missouri, Sam made 10 tackles and three sacks in his four preseason appearances. He worked mostly with the second and third teams and was impressive enough to be one of the final five players let go. Tom Pelissero of USA Today reported Friday that St. Louis had cut 17 of the necessary 22 players but Sam was initially kept on.
Mike Hall of the Big Ten Network thinks this isn't the last we've seen of Sam:
Got a good feeling we're not done hearing from @MichaelSamNFL— Mike Hall (@BTNMikeHall) August 30, 2014
NFL rules required teams have their roster at a 53 players by 4 p.m. ET Saturday. Like all players released over the past few days, Sam will be subject to a waivers process. If picked up, he'll still be able to be on a roster for Week 1. Assuming he clears waivers, Sam could sign with the Rams or another team's practice squad.
As fellow LGBT pioneer and NFL player Wade Davis pointed out, Sam's journey is far from over:
Folks Michael sam's career isn't over & we don't have all the info regarding practice squad - teams normally don't announce that immediately— Wade Davis II (@Wade_Davis28) August 30, 2014
Ty Schalter of Bleacher Report agreed, saying Sam had done more than enough in the preseason to warrant a look:
I can't imagine Michael Sam doesn't get claimed. Showed plenty in the preseason, Rams numbers game was always going to be brutal.— Ty Schalter (@tyschalter) August 30, 2014
Sam publicly disclosed his sexuality for the first time in February. He would be the second openly gay player to play in the United States' four major professional sports, joining NBA center Jason Collins. Since his announcement, Sam has become among the most widely recognized advocates in the LGBT community.
Despite the notoriety of his selection, the Rams and Sam have been consistent that his place on the team was entirely based on merit. With St. Louis boasting one of the NFL's deepest defensive lines, Sam's place on the roster was always up in the air. Coach Jeff Fisher also indicated his work on special teams would not factor into his final decision.
"It's rare that you get a defensive end that's going to go out and contribute on all four of your core special teams," Fisher told reporters last week. "So special teams is not part of the equation for Mike. We're giving him every opportunity to do so, and he's participated in special-teams practices and everything, but that's not going to be part of the criteria for the evaluations."
Doug Farrar of Sports Illustrated noted a needier team might want to take a look at him as a situational pass rusher:
There's a place for Michael Sam in the NFL, and he'll find it. Potential as a strong-side DE with some rotational pass rush.— SI_DougFarrar (@SI_DougFarrar) August 30, 2014
Farrar's colleague Richard Deitsch was ready to guarantee a roster spot—or at the very least a place on the practice squad:
Michael Sam will be on a 53-man roster or a practice squad this year. Book it.— Richard Deitsch (@richarddeitsch) August 30, 2014
Gil Brandt of NFL Network offered a similar sentiment:
Michael Sam will play in this league one day. Minor setback.— Gil Brandt (@Gil_Brandt) August 30, 2014
On merit, it's hard to argue against Sam finding his way on an NFL roster at some point in 2014. With pass rushing taking greater import due to the increased proliferation of pass-first offenses, Sam's ability to get to the quarterback gives him value. He was an All-American and was the co-SEC Defensive Player of the Year based on his sack total and flashed similar abilities in the preseason.
As Adam Levitan of Rotoworld notes, Sam was a net positive using Pro Football Focus grades:
PFF gave Michael Sam a slightly positive grade on his preseason. Two sacks, two QB hits, four QB hurries on 133 snaps.— Adam Levitan (@adamlevitan) August 30, 2014
Pro Football Focus' Sam Monson, on the other hand, highlighted one reason for Sam's release: The excellence of undrafted free agent Ethan Westbrooks:
Michael Sam played ok this preseason. His problem is Ethan Westbrooks played fantastically. pic.twitter.com/8XXywR1yZc— Sam Monson (@PFF_Sam) August 30, 2014
Westbrooks, who signed with the Rams out of West Texas A&M, made the team as St. Louis' ninth defensive lineman. Nubyjas Wilborn offered insight on the situation, highlighting the difficulty of position battles:
Ethan Westbrooks & Michael Sam had a position battle & Westbrooks won, that isn't an indictment on Sam, it's a win for Westbrooks.— Nubyjas Wilborn (@nwilborn19) August 30, 2014
What's more, as ESPN Stats & Info noted, Sam had a less than 50 percent chance of making the roster—at least when judged by the history of seventh-round picks:
Michael Sam cut by Rams per @AdamSchefter. Between 1994 and 2013, 47% of 7th-round picks made Week 1 rosters.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) August 30, 2014
Although the odds were against him, Sam is going to get another shot. Whether it's with the Rams as a practice squad player or on another team's 53-man roster, his preseason was more than impressive enough to land him a job somewhere.
Hopefully it happens sooner rather than later.
Follow Tyler Conway (@tylerconway22) on Twitter.