As we all know, the NFL is a league of attrition, which also makes it -- as an extension of that axiom -- a league of perpetual transactions. In the long run, that bodes well for Michael Sam.
I understand why much would be made of him not landing on a practice squad right now, as in this little quadrant of time and space which exists in the present as we bang out 140-character messages on social media. But as much as we want to comment on the situation, with NFL rosters still very much in flux as teams juggle initial practice squads and sort through hundreds of players who hit the wavier wire this holiday weekend, Sam's NFL future remains very fluid. He's hardly alone; there are legions of 2013 and 2014 late-round draft picks caught in football purgatory, hoping to find a more permanent home, with the situation largely out of their control.
They are at the mercy of this sport's churn, with injuries and lack of production a natural around the league. Thus, new opportunities born every week as young players try to stay in shape and make the rounds for workouts taking place every Tuesday all over the NFL. I'm sure Michael Sam gets this. After all, nothing about this was going to be particularly easy, as is the case for most seventh-round picks, especially those who ended up on a team overloaded with options at his position. But that hardly means it's over.
Here is what Sam has going for him: his tape. It isn't phenomenal and questions will continue to loom about his measurables, and whether he has the physique to hold up to the rigors of playing down in and down out. But he flashed in the preseason, looked the part, was anything but a distraction and appeared dedicated to helping the Rams win. Teammates and coaches were rooting for him. They like him. They want to see him succeed. None of that is immediately forgotten. Sam built up equity in St. Louis, and therefore around the league, and above all else he looked like he could play in the NFL ... just not quite good enough now to crack what looks like the league's deepest group of 4-3 defensive linemen.
Some teams believe he would be a fit only in certain packages, given some physical limitations. So at this time, they would prefer to go with more versatile options than a potential specialist like Sam. That doesn't mean he doesn't have ample time to continue honing his skills and building his body, as he waits for opportunity to develop.
There is no shame in any of that.
The Rams have issues at other positions. That same depth preventing Sam from cracking the 53-man roster works against him on the practice squad, too. Because the Rams have so many options for tackles and ends among the 53, they have to protect positions where they are more thin with the practice squad. They'll need replacements already practicing with them rather street free agents, many of whom are not in game shape, to fill inevitable roster voids in coming weeks. So with some corners beat up, the quarterback position a potential issue with Sam Bradford lost for another season and concerns at others spots of the roster, Sam was a luxury they could not afford right now.
Doesn't mean he won't be back.
The Rams took a calculated gamble they might be able to have a de-facto 11-man practice squad with the rest of the league possibly passing on Sam as well, fearing "distractions" -- media-created or not -- that might come from the NFL's first openly gay player on their extended roster. So in that regard, the good will the Rams already had built up with Sam would go a long way to work in their favor, and the fact this was already a dressing room he could feel comfortable in, and coaches and a scheme he had already spent months getting to know, and with St. Louis a short drive from the Missouri campus that offered refuge as he wrestled with decisions of how to publicly handle his sexuality, the Rams still might be Sam's future home.
It hasn't happened as neatly or quickly as I'm sure many would hope, but that is the nature of this game for a great many young men in their first few years trying to become professionals. Yet the NFL is always producing another wave of stars who once were once undrafted free agents, or cut numerous times or run through the gauntlet of practice-squad transactions and Tuesday tryouts before eventually capitalizing on an opportunity.
The good news for Sam is this was nothing close to the doomsday scenarios some were suggesting -- a combination of utterly poor play and locker room backlash supporting the naïve stereotypes about NFL players as immature bullies. Instead, Sam played well against similar competition, left the Rams with the distinct impression he would be an NFL-worthy player who might be able to help them down the road, who gave them a very difficult decision to contemplate. This wasn't just a camp body who everyone knew would be gone as soon as they cut down to 75 players, if not sooner. It nothing close to a disaster in football terms, or even if judged as a sociological experiment.
I expect to see Sam's name back in the NFL transactions, either on a practice squad or among those reporting to a team for an official tryout. It still won't be easy. But that doesn't mean it's over.
Breaking down Alex Smith's deal: Plenty of agents and NFL team executives are eager to pull back the onion and assess the entire Alex Smith contract once the entire contract is available though the NFLPA and the NFL Management Council. The devil, as always, will be in the details.
On the surface it is a four-year extension, on top of the one year remaining on the deal, that is worth $68M in new money (and $17M per season in new money). When combined with the 2014 already on the deal (for $7.5M) you could make the case, from the team's perspective, the Chiefs will pay Smith a max of $75.5M over the next five years, or an average of $15M a season, which is obviously a tier below the $18M to $21M per year range we've seen the likes of Tony Romo, Jay Cutler, Joe Flacco, Matt Ryan and Colin Kaepernick land in the past 18 or so months.
What remains to be fully parsed out is exactly how much of Smith's "guaranteed" money is fully guaranteed for skill, injury and salary cap at the time of signing. That will tell the story. If it's $30M, but $7.5M of it comes in his 2014 salary that already became guaranteed as of Week 1 anyway, then you could argue that true figure several different ways. Will this turn out to be a two-year extension, after which Smith has earned all his guaranteed money and the Chiefs could essentially go year-to-year, pay-as-you-go with him, which we've seen be the norm in many of these quarterback deals?
By Tuesday everything should be available, and I have a hard time believing the Chiefs are not well-protected on the back end of this deal. For Smith, however, whether it's $15M or $17M, it's smart of him to sign up. Leaving Andy Reid wouldn't be good, he's a player the market has been lukewarm to receive in the past (remember, it's not like the Chiefs just tore up his old deal when they acquired him 15 months ago), and he's in the ballpark of what the 2015 franchise tag likely will be, either way. After the turmoil he went through in San Francisco, finding stability in Kansas City made the most sense, and he isn't on any band-aid contract anymore.
And, with limited options around him and the Chiefs a team many believe could take a tumble back in the standings this season, securing his future before a potential setback probably was probably the way to go.
QB shuffles: If Kyle Orton is the Bills starting quarterback by Week 6, color me among those not surprised in the least. Pressure will mount quickly on EJ Manuel and there already is plenty of tension within the Bills' front office and coaching staff. With the team's ownership still in doubt, it won't be long before people are in job-saving mode (Hell, plenty already are). If that means cutting bait on the quarterback they gambled by drafting so high in the first place, well, stuff happens.
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