Now that Michael Sam has been released by the St. Louis Rams, failing to make their season-opening 53-man roster, the question becomes: What’s next for him?
It appears that, following a productive preseason, he will have a home in the NFL, although it’s not immediately clear where that will be or what roster status he will have.
The most likely outcome, according to people throughout the league, is that Sam ends up right back where he started and is re-signed by the Rams to their 10-member practice squad, making him eligible to practice with the team — and continue to try to develop into an NFL-ready player — but not play in games. That’s if he’s not signed by another team to its roster, which those in and around the league also consider possible.
“You’d have to think he’ll probably end up on [the Rams’] practice squad,” a front office executive from another NFL team said in recent days, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he did not want to be viewed as prying into another team’s business. “They know him better than anyone else. He played pretty well. He’s probably, what, their 55th or 56th guy, something like that? He’s a guy that looks like he could get called up to your roster if someone gets hurt.”
Sam, the defensive end who is the NFL’s first openly gay player, must clear waivers for the Rams to re-sign him to the practice squad, perhaps on Sunday. But first, another NFL team could sign him to its 53-man roster.
“I do think there’s a chance of that,” the front office executive said. “He played well enough [during the preseason] for a team with a need on the defensive line to consider that. He would have to be clearly better than the guy you already have as your last defensive lineman on your roster, and he’d have more to learn about your system than that guy. So that’s tough. But you never know.”
The Dallas Cowboys are among the teams said by people within the league to be scanning the waiver wire particularly closely in search of possible help on defense. They were ranked last in the NFL in total defense last season and lost mainstays Jason Hatcher, DeMarcus Ware and Sean Lee in the offseason. The Cowboys continued to have defensive issues during the preseason and, like the Rams, they utilize a four-linemen, three-linebacker alignment.
Roughly half of the teams in the league use a 4-3 scheme as their primary defense. Those teams probably would be more inclined to consider Sam because, while defensive ends often can be converted to outside linebackers in a 3-4 setup, Sam worked in a 4-3 alignment for all of training camp and the preseason with the Rams and that’s the context in which other teams can evaluate him most readily.
One agent who doesn’t represent Sam said in recent days he thought “off the top of my head” that teams which might give at least a thought to signing Sam could include Dallas, Jacksonville, Minnesota, Tampa, New England, Cincinnati, Buffalo, Oakland, Carolina and the New York Giants. But the agent added that he viewed any of those teams signing Sam as a long shot and he thinks Sam will be re-signed to the Rams’ practice squad.
If Sam clears waivers, he could be signed by any team to its practice squad. The league and the NFL Players Association agreed recently to increase practice squads from eight to 10 players per team for the next two seasons. Under the terms of the collective bargaining agreement, a practice squad player will make $6,300 per week this season. That’s $107,100 for a player who remains on the practice squad for the entire 17-week regular season. The NFL’s minimum salary this season for a rookie on the 53-man roster is $420,000.
A player on the practice squad can be promoted to his team’s roster at any time. A practice squad player also can be signed to another team’s 53-man roster, although his team first has the chance to retain him by promoting him to its roster.
Sam, a seventh-round draft choice by the Rams in May out of the University of Missouri, faced a rosters number crunch on a Rams team filled with accomplished defensive linemen, including ends Chris Long and Robert Quinn. Sam had some eye-catching moments while playing with and against backups during the four-game preseason, with three sacks and 11 tackles. He was credited with six tackles during Thursday’s preseason finale against the Dolphins.
His transition into the culture of an NFL locker room seemed to go smoothly. The Rams and Sam managed to keep his preseason narrative focused on a player trying to make a team’s roster, at least until ESPN created an uproar by reporting this week on Sam’s showering habits in the locker room. Fans took to social media to criticize the report and Rams Coach Jeff Fisher expressed his displeasure. Long wrote on Twitter: “Dear ESPN, Everyone but you is over it.”
The network later apologized. When the focus returned to football, Sam was left to sweat out cut-down day.
Wade Davis, a former NFL defensive back whose announcement that he is gay came after his retirement, advised Sam and the Rams. He wrote this week in Huffington Post: “All eyes will be on the Rams this year because they drafted the NFL’s first openly gay player. Though by all accounts Michael Sam is having a wonderful experience, he, like almost all other players, will be feeling the stress of cut-down day.”
For Sam, that stress now continues for at least another day as he awaits the next step in his NFL career.