Halfway through the preseason, rookie defensive end Michael Sam's primary hurdle for making the St. Louis Rams' roster hasn't changed.
It's a numbers game with one of the NFL's most talented defensive lines, and Sam — the seventh-round draft pick from Missouri who is trying to become the league's first openly gay player — remains a third-stringer entering Saturday's third exhibition at Cleveland.
But when the final cuts come Aug. 30, former Rams vice president of player personnel Tony Softli believes Sam will survive — if he shows some versatility over the next two games to contribute on special teams.
"Michael Sam has shown enough rushing the passer — and that's what he is, he's a DPR, he's a designated pass rusher — that he can get off and beat a tackle on the upfield shoulder. He can spin and come underneath," Softli told USA TODAY Sports on Thursday.
"He's got to prove he can do it on special teams, and I think that's going to be his (way) to make this team."
Coach Jeff Fisher has stressed that few defensive ends contribute on special teams. And Sam's limited chances there so far — six special-teams snaps against the Saints, three against the Packers — reflect that, though there should be more opportunities with starters playing longer Saturday.
Sam has had some positive turns on defense. He notched his first sack late in last week's loss to Green Bay, getting underneath Packers backup tackle Derek Sherrod with an outside move and chasing down Matt Flynn. Sam also got off a block for a run stop, notched a QB hit when he came unblocked and had a pressure with an inside rip move.
An NFL personnel man who watched the game, speaking on condition of anonymity for competitive reasons, described Sam as "kind of a 'try hard' guy. Has some awareness. (Sam) will have a chance I think."
The question is whether a high motor and some productivity against opponents' reserves can compel the Rams to go heavy at a position where starters Robert Quinn and Chris Long play most of the snaps, especially for a player with Sam's athletic limitations.
NFL teams analyze substitution patterns when anticipating cuts, so it hasn't gone unnoticed that Ethan Westbrooks — an undrafted rookie from West Texas A&M, who got his first sack last week on a protection mistake by the Packers — entered the game before Sam both weeks.
The Rams' top four ends are likely set with Quinn, Long, Eugene Sims and William Hayes, provided Hayes makes it back from offseason surgeries. If Westbrooks — who, like Hayes, can play inside or outside — makes it, too, the Rams would have to keep six ends and decide to keep Sam over second-year pro Sammy Brown.
If Sam hits waivers with about 700 other players Aug. 30, he could be claimed — you can never have enough pass rushers — and otherwise figures to be a good bet for the recently expanded practice squad in St. Louis, though there may be another defensive line that needs Sam's help sooner than the Rams.
"On paper, they have the chance to be the best (defensive line) in the league," said Softli, who's now working as an analyst and writing at tonysoftli.com. "These guys have a chance to be very special if they can stay healthy."