St. Louis Rams training camp preview: Special Teams

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Today’s training camp preview focuses on what is probably the most talented unit on the Rams roster: special teams.

The Players:

Kicking specialists:

Greg Zuerlein, kicker (Third season, all with Rams)

Johnny Hekker, punter (Third season, all with Rams)

Bobby Cowan, punter (Undrafted free agent)

Long Snappers:

Jake McQuaide (Fourth season, all with Rams)

Jorgen Hus (Undrafted free agent)

Return specialists:

Tavon Austin, kick/punt returner (Second season, all with Rams)

Justin Veltung, kick/punt returner (Second season, all with Rams)

Benny Cunningham, kick returner (Second season, all with Rams)

Notable players fighting for special teams slots:

Michael Sam (Seventh-round rookie)

T.J. Moe (Second season, first with Rams)

Isaiah Pead (Third season, all with Rams)

Greg Reid (Free agent rookie)

Daren Bates (Second season, all with Rams)

Chase Reynolds (Second season, all with Rams)

The Background:

The Rams quietly put together an incredible special teams season last year. A lot of this had to do with the kicking specialist duo of Greg Zuerlein and All-Pro Johnny Hekker, which has to be considered one of the top kicking duos in the NFL by any measurement.

As I detailed in a piece back in January, Hekker’s record-setting 44.2-yard net average on his punts allowed the punt coverage unit to limit opposing punt returners to only 79 yards all season, which ranked first in the NFL. Meanwhile, Zuerlein booted 52 of his 76 kickoffs out of the back of the end zone. Of the kicks that were returned, none went for more than 40 yards. That’s outstanding, especially when compared to some of the porous coverage units from seasons past by this Rams team.

As for the Rams return unit, they were more middling. Their average of 22.6 yards per kick return ranked just 20th in the league. Punt return average wasn’t a lot better – 8.8 yards per return, ranking 18th – and that was thanks in large part to Austin’s incredible 98-yard touchdown against the Colts.

The Rams return basically all the relevant players from last year’s unit, so the potential is there for another stellar season.

The Battles:

Unless they contract gangreen in their legs between now and the regular season, Hekker and Zuerlein will stay on as the punter and kicker. Mcquaide has turned out to be a reliable long-snapper after taking over for long-time incumbent Chris Massey back in 2011, so expect him to stay.

The real intrigue lies in the non-specialist spots. One name that casual observers will obviously have their eyes on is Michael Sam. Sam recently shed 13 pounds from his 270-pound frame in the hopes of becoming faster and thus more valuable in a special teams role. Isaiah Pead did well for himself in a special teams role last year, so expect him to continue developing those skills in order to stay on the roster. Other fringe players who will likely try to distinguish themselves in order to earn a roster spot include wide receiver T.J. Moe, cornerback Greg Reid, linebacker Daren Bates and running back Chase Reynolds, among others.

The Outlook:

As mentioned above, the Rams – on paper – should once again be one of the top special teams units in the league, especially if the kick return and punt return teams can carry their weight.

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