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Sam simply on wrong side of numbers

8/30/2014

EARTH CITY, Mo. -- From the moment the St. Louis Rams used the 249th pick in May's NFL draft on defensive end Michael Sam, there was never any doubt that he'd have an uphill climb to win a roster spot on the team's deepest unit.

In so many ways, St. Louis was the perfect place for Sam. It's two hours from the University of Missouri, where he played his college football. There's a built-in fan base of the many Missouri alums in the St. Louis area. Owner Stan Kroenke is also an alum and maintains a home in Columbia. Former teammates such as center Tim Barnes and cornerback E.J. Gaines are already on the roster.

But in the way that mattered most -- the football way -- it was always going to be hard for Sam to make the roster. He found out just how difficult that was Saturday afternoon when the Rams announced Sam was one of the 21 players the team released.

Before Sam even arrived in St. Louis, the Rams had eight defensive linemen essentially locked into roster spots. They've kept nine in each of the past two seasons, but Sam faced tough competition from undrafted rookie Ethan Westbrooks for that ninth spot.

"When we drafted Michael, we mentioned that it was going to be a tough road," coach Jeff Fisher said. "Those four defensive ends we have on the roster are good. And they’re very productive. As well as the tackles. That’s the strength of our football team. But again, it was a football decision."

It was a football decision that ultimately boiled down to two things: whether Sam could beat out Westbrooks and, barring that, impressing the coaches enough to persuade them to go even heavier on the line by keeping 10.

The competition between Westbrooks and Sam started out relatively even. Sam was a seventh-round pick, but Westbrooks was the team's prized find in rookie free agency as he received the largest signing bonus among the team's undrafted rookies.

Sam and Westbrooks dueled in the preseason, posting similar stats in the four games and playing more snaps than the other defensive linemen. But as the preseason wore on, it was clear Westbrooks offered every bit as much talent in a more versatile package.

"He was very, very productive in the preseason for us and played all four spots," Fisher said. "He’s a very, very talented young player that I think has a really good future."

With Westbrooks stating a case too good for the Rams to ignore, Sam's best shot to make the roster came down to whether the team wanted to keep 10 defensive linemen, a number well above the usual standard.

Although Sam played well enough to prove he belongs in the NFL, he wasn't so overwhelming that the Rams couldn't keep him. He played almost exclusively as a left defensive end, and any hopes that he could gain an edge by working on special teams never materialized.

Given the injuries to cornerback Trumaine Johnson and offensive lineman Barrett Jones and the need to keep an extra body at those spots, keeping 10 was just not palatable.

"Nine defensive linemen on a roster is a significant number, especially when you are a four-down lineman team," Fisher said. "Nine is a number that you look at to start the season. If you go with 10, then you are going to be short someplace else, and we are just not there."

The Rams could be is in a position to put Sam on the practice squad if he clears waivers. We'll find out Sunday at noon ET whether he will. Fisher declined to comment on the practice squad, but a league source said the team would like to keep Sam there if possible. Either way, that's no sure thing.

"I was pulling for Mike, I really was," Fisher said. "I don’t say that very often, but I was. Mike came in here and did everything we asked him to do."

Indeed, Fisher isn't exaggerating when he says Sam was not a distraction and his time in St. Louis was all about football. And football was the reason that his time on the roster came to an end Saturday afternoon.