Michael Sam made history as the first openly gay player chosen in the NFL draft. Now, he's got to make the team.
As difficult as it is to imagine, given the wall-to-wall media coverage his selection by the St. Louis Rams garnered, Sam is still a seventh-round draft pick, the 249th player taken out of 256. If he signs a contract, it will more than likely be for the rookie minimum – no mere pittance, but approximately $22 million less than the draft's first pick, Jadeveon Clowney, is projected to make over the course of his deal.
And that's assuming Sam actually earns a spot on the Rams' roster. Like pretty much everything in the NFL, it will be an uphill battle ... and when you factor in his seventh-round status and the assembled army of media that will document his every move, it will be an even bigger challenge. In short, not even an executive order can guarantee he'll survive training camp.
"Here's the thing; if you're a first-round pick, and you bring a lot of attention – like Johnny Manziel – teams are willing to put up with that. If you're a seventh-round pick, and you're bringing that same amount of attention, you better distinguish yourself quickly," Sports Illustrated senior writer Andy Staples said. "If Michael Sam comes into training camp and he's unblockable, they won't care how much media coverage he gets, they'll just be happy they got someone who can rush the passer. But, if he comes into camp, and he gets blocked, well, then his fate might be the same as a lot of seventh-round picks: they get cut."
Of course, Sam excelled during his college career, earning co-defensive player of the year honors in the ultra-competitive SEC. But as has been the knock against him since declaring for the draft, his size (he's listed at 6'2", 260 lbs) and lack of a true positional fit make him an odd-man out in the NFL, a league not exactly known for its outside-the-box thinking
"The scouts kept bringing up his physical measurements, questioning where he fits in a defense in terms of size and speed," Staples said. "He's not as long and tall as some would prefer, and you don't know if he'll be able to play linebacker, because he doesn't have experience in coverage. But, the way I look at it, while he might not fit the a lot of the physical archetypes for different positions, he did get to the quarterback in the SEC, and if you can do that, that's a potentially marketable skill."
And Sam will have plenty of opportunities to showcase that skill, first at Rams' training camp and then during the NFL's preseason games (his first chance at seeing on-field action comes on August 8, when the Rams take on the New Orleans Saints). If he stays healthy, and can shine against NFL talent, Sam might earn a spot on the Rams' 53-man roster – and then begin the process of fading into the fabric of the team, much like any other defensive end would.
"Playing defensive end, you have your highlight plays where you go sack the quarterback," Staples explained. "But other than your coaches and a few people who know what they're watching, no one really cares if you set the edge correctly and force the running back inside for a one-yard gain instead of a four-yard gain. That's your job. So, if he does all of those things right, I can't foresee him being treated any differently."
To that end, though there's plenty of uncertainty surrounding Sam's NFL future, there's one thing that's set in stone: His play on the field – not his sexual orientation – will determine his fate. After all, there's only one thing that matters in the NFL, and that's winning. If Sam can contribute, he'll have a home.
"He won't get cut because he's gay, it's because he got blocked. Once you get on the practice field, it's a meritocracy, and they don't worry too much about the politics of anything," Staples said. "They don't keep extraneous pieces on a 53-man NFL roster. If you made it, they expect you to produce and contribute. Once you're on the field, the guys who can play will rise, and the guys that can't will fall."