Since Jeff Fisher and the St. Louis Rams drafted Michael Sam at the end of the 7th round back in May, the media was expectedly gone out of their way in an attempt to cover he acclimation to the NFL. However, with no genuine signs of a”disturbance” in the Rams clubhouse, the narrative over the last couple of weeks has shifted away from Sam overcoming distractions and prejudice to make the final 53-man roster to, now, if Sam can overcome undrafted free agent, Ethan Westbrooks, to make the final 53-man roster.
Through two preseason games, both players have been impressive, getting plenty of early reps, with the Rams top three defensive ends (i.e. Chris Long, Williams Hayes, and Robert Quinn) only seeing a handful, if any, snaps in each game. In only 60 defensive snaps, Michael Sam has accumulated two tackles, one sack, five total quarterback pressures, and two defensive stops (via Pro Football Focus). Conversely, Ethan Westbrooks has managed seven tackles, one sack, five total pressures, and six defensive stops in his 73 defensive snaps.
While both have been impressive in their time on the field, Westbrooks has truly stood out among the second- and third-team players for the St. Louis Rams. His impression hasn’t been felt relative only to the rest of the St. Louis player, but among all player in the league. In fact, he is currently graded as the top 4-3 defensive end through the preseason and, more impressively, the second-highest overall player, trailing only the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ All-Pro defensive tackle, Gerald McCoy.
Given the history of Les Snead and Jeff Fisher, it would be hard to imagine the Rams letting go of a player they had just spent an actual pick on in the most recent NFL Draft. However, given Fisher’s affinity for front-line talent, it may be just as difficult to imagine him letting Ethan Westbrooks go, without some kind of compensation.
So, what is the issue?
The only real issue is the “numbers” game, in terms of roster limits in the NFL. Currently, there are eight “locks” for the final 53-man roster on the St. Louis Rams defensive line: Robert Quinn, Michael Brockers, Kendall Langford, Chris Long, Williams Hayes, Aaron Donald, Alex Carrington, and Eugene Sims. The “average” 53-man roster running a 4-3 base defense will typically maintain eight or nine players. Fisher, in the past, has held firmly to that average, including last year when the Rams maintained nine defensive linemen for the majority of the season.
Keeping both Michael Sam and Ethan Westbrooks would bump that total up to 10 defensive linemen. Could that be done?
Based on our most recent 53-man roster projection, there are a number of areas that could be squeezed to make room for both of these potentially impactful players:
1. The season-ending ACL injury sustained by Isaiah Pead could be one potential answer, filling that opening with another defensive lineman, as opposed to adding another running back to the already-bottlenecked backfield.
2. Another area might be at linebacker, where 2013 undrafted free agent, Phillip Steward, is projected to round out a six-man, second-level corps. Given his relatively low impact on special teams, and the bevy of young talent elsewhere on the roster, his spot could certainly become “expendable.”
3. Quarterback might be another spot, with three players currently slotted to make the 53-man cut. However, Fisher typically maintains only two quarterbacks on the roster, and could easy drop Garrett Gilbert down to the practice squad and/or resort to fishing Austin Davis out of the “available free agents” bin, should something happen to Sam Bradford.
4. Lastly, if necessary, the Rams could whittle down some of the depth on the offensive line, with the understanding that “depth” on the line will come in the form of “versatility,” as opposed to shear numbers. Mike Person would be the prime candidate for that cut, leaving Davin Joseph and Travis Bond on the interior, in case Greg Robinson or Rodger Saffold were needed to fill at one of the offensive tackle positions.
Is it likely that both Ethan Westbrooks and Michael Sam could make the St. Louis Rams 53-man roster?
Maybe not. However, it wouldn’t be the first time that Jeff Fisher broke from the traditional mold to ensure the Rams could keep their rookie “finds” on the roster.