Inside Slant: Michael Sam's week

September, 2, 2014
Sep 2
5:30
PM ET


Everyone has an opinion on why Michael Sam was not among the 2,016 players initially signed to NFL rosters or practice squads this week. Here's the boring truth: Everyone is right.

I can make a fact-based, football-only argument for why Sam didn't make the St. Louis Rams, and for why no other team has signed him to its 53-man roster. It's more difficult to explain the tepid interest he received on the practice squad market.

According to ESPN's Adam Schefter, the Dallas Cowboys plan to add him to their practice squad Wednesday, but there is no concrete football answer for why it took so long -- or why 16 other defensive ends signed practice squad contracts before the Cowboys expressed interest in Sam. In this case, it seems na´ve not to consider the impact of his status as the first openly gay man to be drafted into the NFL.

Let's first tackle the 53-man roster issue before addressing some theories about his initial exclusion from practice squads.

I spoke with a veteran scout Tuesday morning who said the consensus pre-draft evaluation of Sam largely held up during the preseason. Despite the decision to drop 13 pounds before training camp to maximize his speed, Sam didn't prove fast enough to be an NFL-level edge rusher in a 4-3 scheme. And at 257 pounds, he's at least 20-25 pounds too light to fit into other roles: Either as a 3-4 defensive end or as a "swing" backup who can play both inside and outside. (It's worth noting that the defensive lineman who beat out Sam for the Rams' final roster spot, Ethan Westbrooks, can play all four line spots in the 4-3.)

Speed also proved a determining factor on special teams. Those who watched the Rams' preseason games mostly saw Sam used as a blocker for kickoff returns -- a position usually manned by backup defensive tackles and offensive linemen. It's one special-teams position where speed doesn't matter. Practice repetitions apparently made clear that he wasn't a candidate to cover kickoffs or punts, which require sustained speed and lateral movement over 50-plus yards.

So when the Rams waived Sam over the weekend, the rest of the NFL was left to judge whether it could find use for a player who isn't an ideal fit for either of its two dominant defensive schemes and also isn't likely to be much of special-teams contributor. In those terms, it's easy to understand how he passed through waivers.

Nothing about what you just read is unusual for a seventh-round draft pick in the NFL, a natural place to select marginal prospects. Over the past 20 drafts, 46.8 percent of seventh-rounders made a Week 1 roster, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Between 2010 and 2013, that figure was slightly higher at 52.8 percent. In essence, it's a 50-50 proposition.

Some might suggest that Sam's pre-combine announcement sunk his draft status, meaning his chances to make a team based purely on skill should have been higher. That sentiment would require a considerable expansion of conspiracy theory now that all 32 teams have passed on signing him. What's more likely: That 32 teams are knowingly ignoring a player who can help them win this week? Or that there is a football consensus that he cannot?

The answer seems clear to me. On the other hand, the wait for a practice squad spot proved a more difficult space to navigate.

The first thing to know is that most teams use their practice squad as a weekly revolving door of players brought in for many different reasons. There are hundreds of practice squad transactions in the NFL every season.

Some arrive to be evaluated as prospects. Others can provide practice depth at a position where a veteran is taking reps off. A few are signed because they look like or play similarly to an upcoming opponent. In other words: If you're healthy, if you're willing to be treated (and paid) like a scrub and you have even modest skills, you're a candidate to be an NFL practice squad player.

So why wasn't Sam among them prior to Tuesday's news? He is by all reports healthy. The Rams praised his effort through his tenure in St. Louis, and as a "tweener," he could actually provide a reasonable facsimile of upcoming opponents at multiple positions on the scout team. Why were the Cowboys reported to have spent much of Tuesday on "due diligence" on Sam, an unusual time investment when it comes to practice squad players?

We are left, then, to examine the impact of Sam's historic announcement here. As we learned in the divorce between the Minnesota Vikings and punter Chris Kluwe, the NFL's team concept -- fairly or unfairly, right or wrong -- frowns upon any attention a player receives other than for his performance on the field. None of us can get into the heads of general managers to gauge bigotry levels, but we can state with some confidence that, when given the option between relative equals, they are much more likely to make the decision that draws the least amount of public attention.

Fortunately, this story has concluded fairly. Sam received a genuine opportunity to make the Rams' 53-man roster. By consensus, he wasn't good enough. He'll now get a second chance to impress another organization, albeit after a longer-than-usual wait and with a franchise whose owner craves attention like no other. But all's well that ends well, I suppose.

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