It’s long been rumored that the Rams used a late-round draft pick two years ago on defensive end Michael Sam at the behest of the league office. Long-time NFL reporter Howard Balzer, who has focused his attention in recent years on the Rams, reports that the arrangement had a quid pro quo. Balzer cites multiple unnamed sources in support of the notion that, in exchange for the Rams drafting Sam, the league office agreed not to compel the Rams to serve as the focus of the Hard Knocks series in 2014. Per Balzer, the league viewed the Rams as the ideal landing spot for Sam, the first openly gay NFL player, because of the team’s proximity (at the time) to the University of Missouri, where Sam played college football.

Sam, who was added to a depth chart that included a glut of pass rushers, was cut by the Rams before the start of the 2014 regular season. He thereafter spent time on the Cowboys’ practice squad before being released and otherwise ignored by all NFL teams. Balzer also speculates that the league office possibly twisted arms elsewhere to ensure that defensive end Ethan Westbrooks would not be drafted by other teams over the final seven picks in the 2014 draft so that the Rams could sign him as an undrafted free agent. Westbrooks made the 53-man roster that year. Westbrooks received a $20,000 signing bonus and $30,000 in guaranteed salary for the first year of his contract.

Balzer’s report invites also speculation as to whether the decision to assign the Rams the Hard Knocks series in 2016 was part of the deal struck to secure approval for the team’s move to Los Angeles. Ditto for the decision to send the Rams all the way to China for a regular-season game in 2018. And the same for pretty much any decision that ever gets made as to the Hard Knocks series or anything else that a team agrees to do when the team possibly would otherwise prefer not to do it. Balzer’s report confirms that, when it comes to situations like this, there’s always more than meets the eye — and there’s always a chance that the end result was the product of a wink-nod bargain.

Rams coach Jeff Fisher emphatically denied the report when questioned on Thursday. “That in itself is absolutely absurd, it’s 100 percent incorrect. I was really taken aback by those comments. It’s insulting, from my standpoint, as it relates to Michael. We had three seventh-round picks. When we drafted Michael he was the best player on the board. Who in their right mind would think that you give up a draft choice to avoid doing something like that? It’s really unfair to Michael. Michael worked so hard. It’s really not fair to Michael because of all the hard work he put in.”

Sam also responded to the report, tweeting out “I’m not surprised at all,” later in the day. The NFL has not commented on the issue.

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