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Rams face tough decision on Michael Sam

8/29/2014

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- Only time and, eventually, the St. Louis Rams will tell how many defensive linemen they keep on their initial 53-man roster.

Those answers probably won't come in any sort of official capacity until Saturday, when the league mandates every team trim their roster from 75 to 53 players by 4 p.m. ET. In the meantime, the Rams are facing a difficult decision on what to do at the most-watched battle among fifth defensive ends in league history.

On one hand there's Ethan Westbrooks, the versatile, undrafted rookie out of West Texas A&M who has done nothing but make plays since the preseason began. On the other there's Michael Sam, the seventh-round draft choice out of Missouri who has done nothing but make plays since the preseason began. Both have done enough to show that they belong on an NFL roster.

If the Rams were hoping Thursday night would offer some final clarity, they didn't get their wish. Per usual, both players were up to the task of providing further food for thought. Westbrooks had four tackles, a sack and two quarterback hits. Sam showed he can do more than just rush the passer by offering production against the run with a team-high six tackles.

It has long been expected that the Rams would keep nine defensive linemen, and eight spots essentially were locked up before camp even began. If that's the case, then the Rams must now finally choose between Westbrooks and Sam.

"This is the hard part about the National Football League in the next couple of days, reducing the roster to 53," coach Jeff Fisher said. "We’ll have some discussions tomorrow and we’ll go from there."

Those discussions will bring into play many factors beyond what can be seen in a stat book. If there's an advantage to be found in this conversation, it's easily seen in Westbrooks' versatility.

Westbrooks has impressed the Rams' coaches and personnel department with his ability to play multiple positions, and his pass-rushing ability from the interior of the line has been even better than they thought.

"If you are versatile, I feel like some teams can look at you like an end, some can look at you like a tackle and if you can do both equally well and teams like that, I feel like that’s a good value to have," Westbrooks said.

At this point, it would be a surprise if Westbrooks isn't on the roster, at least in this corner of cyberspace. But because both players have made strong cases to stick, there still remains the possibility the Rams could keep both players.

Earlier this week, Fisher said he could keep as many as 12 defensive linemen. He was joking (I think), but the possibility of keeping 10 can't be discounted. The question then becomes how they get to that number.

As with any roster decisions, the numbers game always comes into play. And there are factors that could be working against Sam, including injuries to players such as cornerback Trumaine Johnson and Barrett Jones that aren't serious enough to land them on injured reserve, but might effectively double their roster spots as the Rams carry them and an additional player at the position.

"Those are things that all fall into play with these decisions," Fisher said.

Conversely, the Rams also might have something of a need for bodies at defensive end. They played with just three down linemen against Miami because of injuries to backups William Hayes and Eugene Sims. Hayes did not play in a preseason game as he recovers from a trio of offseason surgeries and Sims watched practice this week with his leg in a brace.

The status of that duo moving forward could also be an X factor in the discussion.

Regardless of the Rams' decision, Sam has no plans to sit around and nervously wait, as he did during the draft. He'll head to his alma mater on Saturday to watch Missouri open the season against South Dakota State secure in the belief he did all he could to win a job somewhere in the NFL.

"I’m very confident I will be playing on an NFL roster this fall," Sam said. "I made some big plays in games and in practice I improved every week and I know I can play in this league."

Now we wait to find out where he'll do it.