With league rules mandating that every team trim its roster to 53 players by Saturday afternoon, the St. Louis Rams announced its final player cuts of the preseason, which among them included defensive end Michael Sam, the first openly gay player to be selected in the NFL Draft, who was also attempting to become the first openly gay player to make an NFL opening day roster.
"These two days, yesterday and today, are very, very difficult," Rams head coach Jeff Fisher said during his official press conference after all the roster moves were made. "I’ve been doing it for many, many years and every year there are difficult decisions. As I told our team yesterday after we had made most of the moves, that unfortunately we let go some really good teammates, some close friends. As I mentioned to the guys in the room yesterday, some may be coming back. You may see them Sunday on the practice squad and some you may never ever see again. These are two very difficult days for us."
Sam, a former star at nearby Mizzou, who was the Co-Defensive Player of the Year in the SEC and a consensus All-America selection last year, was selected in the seventh round by the Rams (pick number 249 overall).
But the Hitchcock, Texas native found himself in a battle to earn a spot on St. Louis' already crowded defensive line, which features several big-name players, including four established veterans at defensive end in starters Robert Quinn and Chris Long, and backups William Hayes and Eugene Sims.
And although no definitive numbers were given, the belief was that St. Louis intended to keep only five players at defensive end, which meant Sam was in a battle with at least four other rookies for that one available reserve defensive end spot.
The player who won the training camp battle though, turned out to be undrafted rookie Ethan Westbrooks out of West Texas A&M.
A 6'4, 267-pounder from Oakland, Calif., Westbrook seemed to show more versatility than Sam, and seemed to thrive when asked to play both inside and outside on the Rams' defensive line.
"He was very productive in the preseason for us and played all four spots," Fisher said. "He is a very very talented, young player that I think has a really good future.”
Fisher usually prefers to have a face-to-face conversation with players before their release becomes official. But Sam had been granted permission to leave St. Louis Saturday morning, so he could attend Mizzou's home opener against South Dakota State.
Sam was still in Columbia when the decision was made to cut him. Fisher said he did get to talk with Sam by phone.
"I had a conversation with Mike about an hour ago," Fisher said, "and our intention is to get together tomorrow so I can tell him the same thing I told everybody else that got let go, the reasons for that and then what their worlds look like moving forward. Mike and I will get together tomorrow and talk about those things."
Sam's journey isn't over though. Not by a long shot.
Any of the other 31 teams in the league could claim him, but they would have to put him on their regular season roster. If no other team did so by noon on Sunday, Sam could then re-sign with the Rams, who would then place him on their 8-member practice squad.
Practice squad players can practice and work out with the team, but are not allowed to play in games.
Here's the full list of St. Louis' player cuts turned into the NFL on Saturday:
WR Emory Blake, OG Travis Bond, WR Austin Franklin, QB Garrett Gilbert, OT Sean Hooey, TE Brad Smelley, OL Mitchell Van Dyke, WR Justin Veltung. OG Brandon Washington.
DE Kourtnei Brown, S Christian Bryant, DT Matt Conrath, S Avery Cunningham, DT Deantre Harlan, LB Aaron Hill, CB Greg Reid, LB Etienne Sabino, DE Michael Sam, LB Phillip Steward, LB Lawrence Wilson, CB Darren Woodard.
The Rams made one other move on Saturday, placing wide receiver Stedman Bailey was placed on the reserve/suspended list. Bailey was suspended for the first four games of the season earlier this summer by the NFL due to a violation of the league's substance abuse policy.