Michael Sam was released by the St. Louis Rams on Saturday afternoon, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter and other reports. News of Sam’s release came just before the deadline for NFL teams to pare their rosters to 53 players before the start of the regular season.
Sam came out as gay after his senior season at the University of Missouri, where he was the Southeastern Conference’s co-Defensive Player of the Year. The Rams made him the first openly gay player selected in the NFL Draft in May.
By all outward indications, the Rams’ decision to cut the seventh-round draft pick was based on football reasons. It’s far from uncommon for seventh-round picks to get cut — though precise numbers aren’t available, draft expert Matt Miller estimates that the number of players taken in the draft’s final round kept on rosters might be as low as 10 percent. And though Sam had a solid preseason, leading the team with three quarterback sacks, he was competing to join a deep defensive line that ranked as the league’s top pass rushing unit in 2013 and returned all of the major players from that team. The Rams drafted defensive tackle Aaron Donald in the first round, further adding talent to the line. Sam was thought to be competing for a single roster spot with at least two other players, including undrafted rookie Ethan Westbrooks, who was also impressive throughout the preseason and survived the final cut Saturday.
Despite his release, there are plenty of reasons to believe Sam’s dream of making it in the NFL is far from over. While Sam slipped in the NFL Draft in part because of size and speed concerns, he improved throughout the preseason, according to Rams head coach Jeff Fisher, and former Rams executives said that Sam had “done enough” to prove he can be a useful pass rusher in the NFL. He finished the preseason on a high note, logging two sacks against the Cleveland Browns in his third preseason game and following it up with six tackles against the Miami Dolphins this week.
“I’m very confident that I’ll be playing on a NFL roster this fall,” Sam said after the game against the Dolphins.
Fisher struck a positive tone about Sam during a Saturday press conference announcing the roster cuts (the Rams cut 17 players Friday evening and five more Saturday to reach the 53-player limit). Some NFL executives and former coaches, anonymous and otherwise, had expressed (misplaced) fears that Sam could be a “distraction,” but Fisher reiterated that he was not.
“There will be no challenge” for a team that chooses to sign Sam, Fisher said Saturday. “There’s no challenge with respect to Mike Sam. He’s not about drawing attention to himself. He kept his head down and worked and you can’t ask anything more out of any player for that matter.”
The release means that other teams that need situational pass rushing help will have a chance to sign Sam, and failing that, the defensive end is an almost-certain candidate to sign with the Rams’ practice squad, which would leave him in position to join the team at some point during the season.
This post has been updated from its original version to add quotes from Fisher’s press conference and further analysis.