Defensive end Michael Sam has gotten through the first checkpoint, advancing past Tuesday’s league-wide mandatory roster cutdown to 75 players.
No surprise, there. Based on his preseason play, it would have been shocking had Sam been released during the cut to 75. But there’s still one more hurdle for Sam to clear in his quest to become the first openly gay player to make an NFL roster.
Namely the final roster cuts, to 53 players, which must be completed by 5 p.m. Saturday.
Sam’s battle for a roster spot with undrafted rookie Ethan Westbrooks has been one of the highlights of training camp and the preseason. In each of the first two preseason games, Sam played pretty well but Westbrooks appeared to play better.
But Sam flipped the script Saturday in Cleveland by sacking Johnny Football himself. (Some call him Johnny Manziel.) Even Westbrooks conceded he didn’t play as well as he would’ve hoped against the Browns.
And now comes the fourth and final game of the preseason, Thursday in Miami. It’s the Bubble Bowl for every player on the edge of an NFL roster, Sam and Westbrooks included.
“I don’t know if it’ll be the most exciting game of my life, but it’ll definitely be the most important game,” Westbrooks said. “It’s very important, vital, to me staying in the NFL. Me being able to do something on a bigger scale for myself and my daughter.
That would Karina, age 3.
So is it Sam or Westbrooks for the ninth spot on the Rams’ defensive line?
Coach Jeff Fisher isn’t tipping his hand.
“They’re both doing well right now,” Fisher said, when asked about the competition. “No different than any other positional races on this football team. You know me, I’m not going to say who’s 1, or who’s 2.”
Is it possible, then, that Fisher will keep 10 defensive linemen on the roster — meaning both Sam and Westbrooks make the final 53?
“It’s possible we can keep 12,” Fisher replied, tongue in cheek.
Keep in mind both of the top backup defensive ends are injured, making their status uncertain at this point for the opener Sept. 7 against Minnesota.
Williams Hayes has practiced very little and has yet to play in a game as he completes rehab from three offseason operations, most notably hip surgery. Eugene Sims is sidelined with a knee injury.
So maybe it’s not out of the realm of possibility that the team carries both Sam and Westbrooks into the regular season.
But there are other moving parts. For example, what if Trey Watts has another strong outing and Fisher decides to keep five running backs? Originally it looked like keeping only four running backs was likely after Isaiah Pead’s season ending knee injury.
On the offensive line, do the Rams carry Barrett Jones on the 53-man roster coming off back surgery? Or is he placed on injured reserve, or injured reserve/designated for return? If it’s one of the latter two options, that frees up a roster spot that could be used for Sam or Westbrooks.
Sam was not made available to the media Monday or Tuesday, but he was quizzed about his roster battle following Saturday’s 33-14 victory over Cleveland.
“I can only control what I can control,” Sam said. “I am not only interviewing for the Rams, but I am also interviewing for the other 31 teams. As long as I keep getting better, and I have one more week to get better.”
More precisely, one more game before the cutdown to 53.
Sam’s sack of Manziel almost paralyzed Twitter for a few minutes Saturday night. Especially when part of Sam’s sack celebration included mimicking Manziel’s infamous “money” gesture.
“If you’re gonna sack Johnny, you’ve gotta do it (the ‘money’ gesture),” Sam said, smiling. “At least once.”
The Rams’ bench erupted in cheers after the sack.
“The guys are rooting for me, too,” Sam said. “They want to see me succeed. They’re my teammates, and hopefully I can keep on making big plays.”
Originally, it was thought that Sam ended the game with another sack of Manziel. Sam was involved in a scrum on the final play of the game, part of a pile of defenders who brought down Manziel. But after reviewing game film, the Rams’ coaching staff awarded that sack to safety Christian Bryant.
Even so, Sam clearly made a statement in that game, and whatever lead Westbrooks may have had in the competition is anything but secure entering the all-important Miami game.
Westbrooks called his performance against Cleveland “honestly the worst game I’ve played — just from an alignment and assignment standpoint.”
Even so, he finished with three tackles, including one for loss, and also batted down a pass in 38 plays.
“I definitely want to get better and do better in this last game,” Westbrooks said. “Just put it all on the field because at the end of the day it really could be my last football game.”
Westbrooks has seen more action than Sam so far this preseason, with 106 defensive plays in three games to Sam’s 76. And in the last couple of games, against Green Bay and Cleveland, Westbrooks has been seeing action with the second unit, whereas many of Sam’s snaps have been with the third defense.
Westbrooks brings versatility because he can also move inside and play defensive tackle.
Westbrooks doesn’t quite get the whole Sam vs. Westbrooks idea because he feels like he’s competing against every defensive end on the roster.
“I’ve heard about it, read some stuff about it,” Westbrooks said. “It’s amusing, entertaining. But I don’t really read to much into it.”
Westbrooks met Sam at the NFL scouting combine in February and has gotten to know him since the football fates brought them to Rams Park.
“He’s a cool dude,” Westbrooks said. “Never had no issues — he’s a real cool friendly dude.”