Let me preface this by stating that I couldn’t have imagined myself being really troubled about the St. Louis Rams’ release of defensive end Michael Sam just one day ago. There were so many talented players with the Rams in camp, and at one point it really did not look like Sam was enough of a standout performer to crack the roster. But things really couldn’t have come down much more oddly than they did Saturday, and it needs to be debated whether the Rams really carried their best 53 players.
We can use the football cliches “football decision” and “numbers game” in plenty of situations involving NFL transactions. And in discussing the Rams’ release of Sam, those terms will suffice as an explanation of the move for many, particularly detached national media types.
But really, it’s not that simple. We can say that Sam lost a “hard-fought battle” for a ninth defensive line spot with undrafted free agent Ethan Westbrooks, who was arguably the biggest star of the Rams’ preseason. When you delve into the roster composition, however, it’s much more complicated.
The most obvious flaw in this claim is that the Rams kept five tight ends on their active roster: more than any other team in the NFL, and two above the league average of three. On top of that, one of those tight ends was Justice Cunningham, the final pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, who suffered a high ankle sprain in Thursday’s preseason finale. Cunningham is likely the fifth-string tight end behind Jared Cook, Lance Kendricks, Cory Harkey, and Alex Bayer. According to Leading Edge Physiotherapy, the time it takes to recover from a high ankle sprain ranges from eight weeks to six months. While Cunningham can certainly play hurt for some of that time, it’s still puzzling that the Rams would feel the need to keep him considering that he’ll be out at least at the start of the season.
It stands to reason that if the Rams were going to go heavier than any other team in the league at a position, they easily could have done so on the defensive line instead of at tight end. As a bonus, they would have another healthy participant in practice by keeping Sam on the 53-man roster instead of Cunningham.
Secondly, the Rams had the opportunity to keep their nine best-performing defensive linemen, but instead aimed to justify an offseason free agent signing by retaining defensive tackle Alex Carrington. The 27-year-old Carrington, who signed a one-year contract for $1.5 million, with $1 million guaranteed, really didn’t show anything during training camp practices or preseason games, registering only two tackles over the four exhibition contests. And seeing as Carrington, who ended 2013 on injured reserve with the Buffalo Bills, has just 53 total tackles and four sacks over 44 NFL games, his production doesn’t exactly back up the belief that he should have been locked into a roster spot no matter what.
Unless head coach Jeff Fisher alters the gameday roster composition that he’s used during his first two years in St. Louis, Carrington shouldn’t expect to be active much during the regular season. Most of the time, Fisher has gone with three active defensive tackles. Unless one of them is hurt, those three guys will almost surely be Michael Brockers, Aaron Donald and Kendall Langford.
Carrington has about 30 pounds on Westbrooks, but they’ve both played a lot on the inside this year, and Westbrooks has had a lot of success at the position. So, in reality, the choice was between paying Carrington a million and a half to stand on the sidelines in street clothes or paying Sam $420,000 to do the same thing. With that said, ESPN isn’t going to do reports about which players are or aren’t showering with Alex Carrington. When Alex Carrington spends Sunday after Sunday standing on the sidelines in sweats, it won’t lead off every network’s Rams highlights package. Though Fisher said Saturday that Sam was never a distraction, realistically it must be acknowledged that the media coverage could have had at least a small role in the decision.
After all, Sam had nine more tackles and three more sacks than Carrington this preseason. He provides a unique skill set compared to Carrington, who looks like he’s going to be cast into the same role as Westbrooks, playing as an end/tackle hybrid. Sam is a healthy body actually capable of participating in practice, unlike Cunningham, who’s going to be out for some time. But those guys aren’t going to redirect the focus on the team, and unfortunately when it came down to it, that assurance was more valuable than the possibility of having Sam develop into a successful pass rusher in this league.
Despite Fisher’s claims that he was “pulling for Mike” to make the roster, it was pretty telling that he didn’t appear to have significant interest in adding the rookie defensive end to the team’s practice squad if given the opportunity, instead pointing out that the Rams had needs at a lot of other positions that they needed to address on the 10-man supplementary roster. So maybe the anonymous personnel people who remarked that the NFL was a few years away from being able to accept a gay player were correct. If Sam isn’t claimed by a team on waivers tomorrow afternoon and doesn’t end up on a practice squad, we’ll have our answer.