Michael Sam's path to Rams roster is clear

EARTH CITY, Mo. -- A week into his first NFL training camp, St. Louis Rams defensive end Michael Sam offered a familiar refrain when meeting with the expanded media contingent Tuesday.

"All I'm thinking about is making this team," Sam said. "I'm learning from the guys and I want to make this team. They're teaching me a lot. I'm doing what they're doing. They've been here for seven, eight years. I want to do that as well."

Sam has been unwavering in that mantra since he returned to St. Louis for the start of camp. Almost since the time the Rams used the 249th overall pick on Sam in May, there have been plenty of questions about whether or not that goal of making the 53-man roster is realistic. Terms like long shot or outside chance have been thrown around.

But as this training camp rolls along, Sam's route to making the roster has gained clarity. Although the Rams have eight defensive linemen that are all but certain to make the roster in Robert Quinn, Chris Long, William Hayes, Eugene Sims, Michael Brockers, Kendall Langford, Aaron Donald and Alex Carrington, they have kept nine in each of the two years under coach Jeff Fisher and Les Snead.

It's no sure thing they'll do that again this year but it remains a strong possibility. Which means it's not Sam's job to try to beat out established depth like Hayes or Sims. No, his competition comes in the form of undrafted rookie types such as tackles Deantre Harlan and Ethan Westbrooks and holdover Matt Conrath.

Westbrooks entered camp as Sam's primary competition for a potential ninth spot on the defensive line but that hasn't manifested because Westbrooks is on the non-football injury list and has yet to practice.

More important than what others aren't doing, though, is what Sam is doing. Getting plenty of reps as the second-team left defensive end while Hayes works back from surgeries, Sam has pieced together some strong practices. The highlight was an eye-catching effort Saturday when he consistently beat tackle Sean Hooey in one-on-one pass-rush and team drills.

"He’s improving," Fisher said. "[Defensive line] coach [Mike] Waufle is doing a great job … with his hand usage and placement things and so, he’ll just keep working at it.”

Improved pass-rushing traits will do nothing but help Sam's chances of landing a roster spot, especially if he can translate that work into preseason games.

Sam's biggest advantage when stacking up against the other linemen vying for jobs, though, is his ability to help on special teams.

Sam has been a staple of most special-teams drills, getting a lot of work blocking for the punt return and kick return units. He dropped 13 pounds to get down to 257 so he could run faster to cover kicks and punts as well.

During Monday's special-teams-only practice, Sam made a strong impression on coach John Fassel and even caught himself off guard a bit.

"I'm kind of surprised myself at how good it went because I haven't played special teams in two years," Sam said. "So I thought I did great."

That's a sentiment shared by Fassel, who specifically noted Sam's ability as a blocker on the return units. Perhaps that should come as no surprise for Sam, who played offensive tackle in addition to his defensive duties at Hitchcock (Texas) High.

“At the end of the last competitive drill he did a really good job as a blocker," Fassel said. "I can see him being a good guy on punt return and kickoff return as a blocker.”

For Sam to achieve his goal and make the roster, there is still plenty of work to be done. Now that the Rams are in pads, he'll need to continue to improve his pass rush and look to offer more than his favored speed rush to bend the edge. And while the lost weight has been beneficial in terms of his short-area speed, Fassel would like to see him maintain it longer so he can run down kicks.

Sam remains unconcerned with increased media attention and the like in pursuit of a roster spot.

“My goal is still just to make this team, whether I was a first-round pick or a free agent," Sam said. "My job is to make this team. Whether you guys are here or not, that’s my goal.’’

It's a goal that remains uncertain but at least the path to reach it has become more clear.