Michael Sam made history this weekend by being the first openly gay player drafted into the NFL, but he still has several hurdles to clear before making the St. Louis Rams. As a seventh-round pick, Sam is far from guaranteed to make the Rams—in fact, his new coach Jeff Fisher said he won't hesitate to cut Sam if he isn't good enough to make the team.
Here, for the reader not into the minutiae of NFL preseason roster-building, is what his next five months will look like.
Though teams don't often cut draft picks before the start of their first season, a late round pick's job is rarely secure. Assuming the Rams are committed to considering only Sam's talent as a football player in deciding whether to put him on the roster, these are the dates to look out for on his road to the NFL.
May 13: Training Camp Begins
Sam's first official time with the Rams begins on Tuesday, when rookies report to St. Louis for the beginning of training camp. Over the next three or so weeks, he'll work out and practice with the team, competing in basic drills on the defensive line, where Rams coaches will have their first chance to evaluate Sam's play on the field.
June 3: Team Scrimmages Start
This is the first of the Rams' ten "organized team activities" of the offseason. "Organized team activities"—OTAs in NFL jargon—are football practices, but not quite: offensive and defensive players can compete against each other, but players are not able to hit or tackle. Players wear helmets, but no pads. Sam's agility, strength and skill will be tested against other players', but because he plays on the line of scrimmage—where offensive and defensive linemen clash, with intrinsic contact—these few weeks will likely be less important to his future than if he were, say, a quarterback or wide receiver.
Mid-July: Full-Contact Practices
The Rams will return to practice sometime in mid-July in preparation for their first preseason game. These full-contact practices are crucial for players like Sam who are on the fringes of a roster.
In Sam's case, he will have opportunities to rush the quarterback and chase after running backs in simulated game scenarios like head-to-head drills or full team scrimmages. This is where Rams coaches will get a close-up look at how Sam stacks up against other NFL talent. If he excels in July, he will have a good shot of making the Rams; if he doesn't stand out, he may be in trouble.
August 8: First Preseason Games
The Rams will host the New Orleans Saints on the second Friday in August in their first preseason game. Preseason games are real, live football games, played in a team's stadium in front of thousands of people. But because teams are wary of exposing their most valuable players to injury, preseason games are more important for players like Sam, who may still need to prove that they are good enough to make the final roster.
Still, the rosters have begun to congeal for many coaches at this point, and it can be hard for a player to stand out in the preseason if he has been lackluster in practice. It's possible for a player to have a monster game in the preseason, but NFL coaches are likelier to put greater weight on what happened in front of their eyes in practices. Instead, this first preseason game will be a way for fans to gauge Sam's current standing with the Rams: if he gets in the game with the first or second wave of backups, it means he has risen up the depth chart. If he doesn't see the field until late in the fourth quarter—or not at all—it means he has a number of players at his position still ahead of him.
August 25: First Round of Cuts
NFL teams are allowed to have 90 players on their rosters in the offseason, but as the season gets closer they must begin to cut them down to the regular season number of 53. This first wave of cuts brings the roster from 90 to 75, and it will be the Rams' first chance to part ways with Sam, if they so choose. But, as a draft pick, it's highly likely that Sam will at least make it past this deadline.
(Note: This August 25 date has yet to be announced, but based on last year's NFL schedule, the first cut day is the Monday after the third weekend of preseason games, which in 2014 would be August 25.)
August 30: Second Cuts
The Rams' final preseason game is on Thursday August 28, when they travel to Miami to face the Dolphins. That weekend, NFL teams will decide which 53 players will make the final roster to begin the regular season. With 22 more players being cut, this will likely be an anxious few days for Sam.
(Note: Like the above date, this one has also yet to be announced, but based on last year's schedule, August 30 is likely to be the final cut day.)
August 31: Post-Cut Roster Moves
If Sam makes the final 53, he will begin preparing of the regular season. But if not, a couple of different things could happen to him on August 31. The Rams may designate him as a member of the "practice squad." Practice squad players practice with the team in the weeks in between regular season games, but don't suit up on Sunday. But if a player on the regular roster gets injured or is ineffective at any point in the season, teams will often pluck a player from the practice squad to replace him.
If the Rams cut Sam completely, another team can pick him up. It's common in this period between final cuts and the first game for teams to sign previously cut players to their own practice squads. So if the Rams let go of Sam, he could be picked up and stashed by another team.
(Note: Like the previous two dates, this one has yet to be announced, but practice squads are built the day after final cut day.)
September 7: Season Opener
The Rams open the regular season in Minnesota against the Vikings. By this point, we will know Sam's fate. He may be with the Rams or with another team, or waiting at home to be signed at some point during the season.