When the St. Louis Rams play the Cleveland Browns Saturday night in Week 3 of the NFL preseason, we will witness a couple of firsts -- defensive end Michael Sam, the league's first openly gay player on the Rams, and quarterback Johnny Manziel of the Browns, the first rookie with his own TV network, ESPN. All that's missing is Tim Tebow doing color commentary.
The two will almost certainly be on the field opposite each other at some point Saturday, as NFL teams get ready to trim their rosters to 53 players by Aug. 31. Sam and Manziel have played against each other in college, with Sam sacking Manziel last year in Missouri's 28-17 win over Texas A&M.
Both players are celebrities for different reasons, but only Manziel is guaranteed to be on an NFL roster by the Sept. 4 season opener. He is a first-round draft pick for the Browns and will start the season as the backup quarterback, but there is no way he will be cut. Sam, on the other hand, is fighting an uphill climb to make a spot on the Rams and how he performs Saturday will be crucial.
Sam is battling math and an undrafted rookie named Ethan Westbrooks. Defensive line is the strength of the Rams and the team is expected to keep nine players at that position. Eight of the spots, barring injury in the final two preseason games, are already accounted for among veterans, which leaves Sam fighting other rookies for the ninth spot.
Sam has played well in the first two preseason games, with two tackles and one sack. He has played on 59 defensive snaps and a little on special teams. The problem is that Westbrooks has been one of the stars of Rams training camp. He has played in 72 snaps, is second on the team with 11 tackles and has one sack and has also played special teams. Twice this week, head coach Jeff Fisher singled out Westbrooks for praise in media sessions, while he has not mentioned Sam.
ESPN's Rams writer Nick Wagoner projects that Sam will not make the final roster, writing: "After some back and forth, I decided this was the week to elevate Westbrooks after another solid performance against Green Bay. Michael Sam also played well against the Packers, but Westbrooks has been more consistent in practice and offers more positional versatility. Sam remains in the race, but to my eye it looks like Westbrooks has moved ahead for now."
Wagoner's analysis is echoed by other writers, but this does not mean that Sam has no chance. He will get his opportunities Saturday and a week from now (assuming he makes the first roster cut on Tuesday). Injuries to other players on the defensive line could change the equation in his favor. Even if he is cut and goes unclaimed by the other 31 NFL teams, there's a good bet Sam will be signed to the Rams practice squad. A sack or two of Manziel could go a long way in determining if Sam will be in uniform two weeks from now.