In what may go down as the 2014 NFL preseason’s most noted play, Michael Sam exploded off the line and sacked Cleveland Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel during the fourth quarter of the St. Louis Ram’s third preseason game Saturday night. It was Sam’s second sack of the game and third of the preseason, and he celebrated by mocking Manziel’s money sign.
Sam is probably the most high-profile seventh-round pick on any NFL field this preseason, and for good reason: he was the first openly gay player ever selected in the NFL Draft and could this fall become the first openly gay player in NFL history. But he still has to make the team, and with the Rams and all other NFL teams set to pare their rosters down from 75 players to just 53 at the end of this week, it remains unclear whether Sam will have a spot.
The reviews on Sam’s play during the preseason are largely positive. His three sacks lead the team during the preseason, and head coach Jeff Fisher has noted that Sam is “improving.” Sam has “shown enough rushing the passer,” former Rams vice president of player personnel Tony Softli told USA Today last week. Softli said he thought Sam would ultimately make the cut even before his strong performance against Cleveland.
But, as might be expected with a late-round draft pick battling to make a crowded roster, his place on the team is anything but secure. “We have a reality that we can only keep so many players at that position,” Fisher told reporters in St. Louis last week. “Is he better than that fourth or fifth defensive end? Right now, I can’t answer that.”
That’s not surprising, given that we’re talking about the Rams. St. Louis returns the defensive ends that gave them the league’s best pass rushing defensive line (according to Football Outsiders) in 2013, and they drafted defensive tackle Aaron Donald in the first round to add to returning players on the line’s interior. In all, eight of their defensive line spots are probably locked up. Sam is competing with two other players to join those eight guys on the defensive line, and Fisher has been impressed with one of those players, undrafted rookie Ethan Westbrooks, throughout the preseason.
The consensus seems to be that if Sam wants the last spot, he will need to excel on special teams. When Sam has been on the field in punt and kick situations during practices, Rams special teams coach Jim Fassel has liked what he has seen.
“At the end of the last competitive drill he did a really good job as a blocker,” Fassel told ESPN Rams reporter Nick Wagoner at the end of July. “I can see him being a good guy on punt return and kickoff return as a blocker.”
Sam has always faced an uphill battle to make the Rams’ roster given their depth and talent on the defensive line. But as the deadline for final cuts approaches — teams have to shrink their rosters to size by 4 p.m. Saturday — he still has a chance, and many observers think he has earned his spot on the team. “I can play in this league,” Sam told reporters after his first preseason game. And it seems now that Sam has played well enough to dispel some of the concerns that existed before the draft, which means he could end up on the Rams’ practice squad or see interest from teams that need situational pass rushing help on the defensive line even if he doesn’t make the roster in St. Louis.