Michael Sam, Rams are a perfect fit

Sunday, May 11, 2014
The NFL should be thankful the St. Louis Rams ended the last bit of suspense in this year's draft by selecting defensive end Michael Sam late in the seventh round. For one, it saved commissioner Roger Goodell from the awkward task of having to answer questions about whether the league is filled with homophobia. More importantly, it gave Sam the chance to prove he does actually belong at the next level. That is the question only he can answer in the coming months, and he found the best possible place to do it.

If we're really being honest with ourselves, there were only so many teams that had the right makeup to handle the task of employing the first openly gay player in the NFL. St. Louis, in retrospect, should've been right at the top. The Rams have the perfect mix of variables that could help Sam find an instant comfort zone in the league. The first thing on that list is their location -- only 125 miles from the same Missouri campus where Sam became a first-team All-American last season.

That proximity is something Sam should cherish. It means he doesn't have to wonder if a community is going to embrace him, and his new team doesn't have to fret about how the locals will react to its seventh-round pick. The state of Missouri has already moved beyond Sam's historic announcement back in February.

But the people who want to believe the rest of this country is in the exact same place are fooling themselves. Even if it wasn't obvious, you can bet some general managers thought long and hard about what kind of distractions might come with Sam's arrival. That's just part of the business.

Rams general manager Les Snead and coach Jeff Fisher were savvy enough not to fear bringing Sam to their organization. They focused on what he could bring to their franchise. They saw the qualities that turned him into a great college player.

Fisher's presence was vital because Sam needed a coach who wasn't worried about job security and had a true feel for establishing team chemistry. In Fisher, Sam gets a coach who has enough clout to operate as he sees fit, and the Rams' locker room appears to be strong and unified -- devoid of the juvenile behavior that evolved within the Miami Dolphins last season.

What Sam basically has in the Rams is what every rookie should hope for: a team that has a clear sense of how it can fit him into its system. The people who wanted to celebrate Sam's stellar senior season at Mizzou -- for which he was named SEC co-defensive player of the year with Alabama's C.J. Mosley-- need to understand he was never an impressive enough athlete to warrant a higher selection. Sam is a player who thrives because ofhis heart and will, a desire to outwork the competition. Fisher has long had affection for such players, and that's probably how Sam won him over.

The best-case scenario for Sam was to find a team that could use him as a situational pass-rusher and on special teams. At 6-foot-2 and 261 pounds, he doesn't have the size to be a full-time defensive end or the athletic ability to play outside linebacker in the NFL. Sam joins a team that is flush with talented linemen (including first-round pick Aaron Donald) on a rapidly improving defense. If Sam can find a spot in a defensive end rotation that includes Chris Long and Pro Bowler Robert Quinn, he'll have ample opportunity to showcase the pass-rushing skills that resulted in 11.5 sacks last fall.

Special teams will offer even more chances for Sam to find his niche. It was difficult to find anybody at Mizzou's pro day who didn't rave about his resilient nature, which is what separates remarkable special-teamers from ordinary ones. Special teams happens to be an area in which Fisher loves to find hidden gems. Sam's ability to cover kicks or play on return units will go a long way toward deciding if his career starts off on the right foot.

The best news for Sam is that he finally has what he wants. It's impossible to know everything that was churning through his mind as the draft neared its conclusion, but fear had to be part of his thought process. It took 249 picks before Sam's name was announced at Radio City Music Hall. By that point, only a smattering of observers remained.

Before that point, according to an ESPN poll, more than 60 percent of those still watching the draft assumed Sam was going to go undrafted. With only seven picks remaining, that was the opinion from this vantage point as well. The seventh round is usually a time when teams take fliers on players that intrigue them. At that stage, teams hope to uncover a diamond in the rough.

But the Rams almost certainly put much more thought into this pick. Sam has too much talent to just write this off as a public relations move. Like every other player in this draft class, he can help the right team as long he finds the right set of circumstances.

This is why Sam should feel grateful for what transpired in the draft. He made history, and he's one step closer to realizing the dream he's sought since he donned shoulder pads for the first time. The best news for him is that this is no longer a story about what might happen if the NFL was ever faced with an openly gay player. Today, it's about what that player is going to do with his opportunity.

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