Since he was drafted near the end of the seventh round this past May, rookie defensive lineman Michael Sam has been arguably the biggest story surrounding the St. Louis Rams and one of the most prominent stories in the NFL as he attempts to become the league’s first openly gay player. Sam has had a strong training camp and seems to have a fairly strong chance at making the 53-man roster, but the player who many believe is directly challenging him for a roster spot, undrafted free agent Ethan Westbrooks, has picked up plenty of steam recently.
As shocking as it was to see Sam become the lowest-ever selected SEC Defensive Player of the Year in the seventh round, it was equally surprising to see Westbrooks go undrafted entirely. After beginning his college career at Sacramento City Junior College, the 6-foot-4, 267-pounder played the past two seasons at West Texas A&M. He was nearly unstoppable in 2012, picking up 60 tackles, 19.5 sacks, and 29.5 tackles for loss while rushing from every position on the defensive line. Because of that unbelievable production, he was awarded the Division II National Defensive Player of the Year Award.
Though his play dropped off as a senior and he collected a less-impressive seven sacks and 19.5 tackles for loss, Westbrooks showed his potential again (while playing against significantly better competition) in the East-West Shrine Game, collecting two sacks and another two tackles for loss on his way to winning the Defensive MVP award for the game.
Despite Westbrooks’ talent and versatility, he still failed to be selected in the draft, while guys who had less heralded college careers, such as Illinois State’s Shelby Harris, Marist’s Terrence Fede, and Louisiana Tech’s IK Enemkpali, were taken instead. In a recent interview with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s Bryan Burwell, Westbrooks attributed this to perceived “character issues”, an obvious one of which may be the tattoos that prominently adorn his throat and the left side of his face. Westbrooks got the facial tattoo as a motivator for himself to strongly pursue a professional football career after deciding that he never wanted to work a normal job again. It’s easy, however, to see how the same talent evaluators who were so concerned about Sam’s sexuality possibly dividing a locker room could see Westbrooks’ body art as something gang-related rather than a simple motivational tool.
Westbrooks got behind in training camp while nursing a hamstring injury that landed him on the Non-Football Injury list and kept him out of the first week of training camp. Since returning, however, he’s made a rather good impression. Westbrooks has shown quality speed coming off the edge, primarily at the right end position, and he’s also begun to get work inside at defensive tackle.
The way the Rams are utilizing Westbrooks makes plenty of sense, as the first guy he reminded me of when watching his college film was the Rams’ William Hayes, a versatile pass rusher who makes an impact from every position along the line. He’s got good speed and quality power, and he seems to have the potential to eventually contribute in a Hayes-like role as a rotational defensive lineman.
While he didn’t exactly jump out as an extremely productive player during Friday night’s preseason opener against the New Orleans Saints, Westbrooks did in fact have a very solid night, registering three tackles, two stops, and two quarterback hits according to Pro Football Focus, while also receiving the second-highest grade for a 4-3 defensive end by PFF for the league week.
Westbrooks and Sam’s battle may be the most intriguing Rams storyline to follow for the rest of the season. Realistically, there are probably some financial factors tied to the decision. Westbrooks is receiving $50,000 guaranteed, the highest amount of any Rams undrafted rookie, which actually trumps the reported $46,000 guarantee that Sam received in his rookie contract. With that said, Sam is one of the top jersey sellers in the league and could continue to provide large financial incentives to the organization.
Both Westbrooks and Sam are talented players who can be effective rotational players in the league. So if Sam doesn’t establish himself as a must-keep player on special teams, the choice may end up coming down to which of the two the Rams think is easier to sneak through waivers to their practice squad. Westbrooks’ versatility, combined with the fact that Sam is gay and will be automatically written off by at least several personnel departments around the league, probably indicates that Sam would be the easier guy to cut. Then again, with the Rams possibly going shorter than usual at the running back and wide receiver positions, it’s perhaps possible that they could keep both players. It should be very interesting to see how it all ends.