The St. Louis Rams have waived rookie defensive end Michael Sam, temporarily derailing his quest to become the first openly gay player to make an NFL regular-season roster.
Sam, 24, will be subject to waivers, and he could be claimed onto the 53-man roster of another team by the end of the weekend. If he is unclaimed, Sam could wind up on the Rams' 10-man practice squad.
A seventh-round draft pick out of Missouri, Sam had three sacks in the preseason and was credited with a team-high six tackles (five solo) in Thursday's exhibition finale against Miami.
But he was caught in a numbers game along the Rams defensive line, which is one of the deepest and most talented in the NFL.
Sam was likely beaten out by Ethan Westbrooks, an undrafted rookie from West Texas A&M who was ahead of Sam on the depth chart throughout the preseason. Westbrooks' ability to play all four defensive line positions made him a more valuable reserve.
"I made some big plays in the games, and in practice I improved every week. I know I can play in this league," Sam said Thursday night.
But right now, it is unclear when and where he'll get to show it.
Sam, the SEC's defensive player of the year last season at Missouri, was among the most scrutinized rookies since he announced in February that he was gay. With questions about both his on-field abilities as an undersized and not overly athletic pass rusher and uncertainty about how an NFL team would handle the first openly gay player in a locker room, Sam fell to the No. 248 pick.
In some ways, St. Louis was the perfect spot for Sam to begin his NFL career. He was drafted by one of the NFL's most respected head coaches in Jeff Fisher and joined a team with strong veteran leaders like defensive end Chris Long. Sam also initially remained close to Columbia, Mo., where he had been open about his sexuality to his Missouri teammates and on campus for a year without issue.
But the Rams' strong defensive roster had Sam on the roster bubble for all of August. With Long, Robert Quinn, William Hayes and Eugene Sims firmly set as the team's top four defensive ends, it was difficult to see the Rams keeping more than five defensive ends. That put Sam into almost direct competition with fellow rookie Westbrooks, who had two sacks in the preseason and led the Rams in tackles.
"Ethan's made a lot of plays, every time you look," Fisher said late Thursday night after the preseason finale.
Sam did show potential as a pass rusher throughout the preseason, but concerns remained about his overall readiness to play at the NFL level beyond a limited pass-rushing role.
Still, Sam believed he had done enough. He planned to spend the weekend at Mizzou, watching his alma mater play its first game of the season, and he was photographed Saturday afternoon on the sidelines before the game.
"It's not going to be like the draft. I'm very confident," Sam said Thursday night. "I'm going to sleep really well. I'm confident I'll be on a team, the Rams or another team, in the NFL."
Sam's release will certainly generate more headlines than most late-round draft picks, understandable because of the cultural significance of his quest to become the first openly gay player.
But Wade Davis, a former NFL player and the executive director of the You Can Play Project, said he is confident that the Rams' decision was only based on Sam's football acumen.
Davis, who came out as gay after his brief NFL career was over, played for Fisher with the Tennessee Titans and spent time with Fisher and Rams general manager Les Snead in St. Louis earlier this week.
"From the Rams' perspective, this is 100% a football decision," Davis said.
Though Sam would benefit financially if another team were to claim him for its 53-man roster, Davis believes the best thing for Sam's long-term development would be a spot on the Rams' practice squad.
"He's proven he needs more snaps," Davis said.
"By drafting him, they showed a level of investment in him already."