December 2, 2012; St. Louis, MO, USA; St. Louis Rams kicker Greg Zuerlein (4) celebrates with punter Johnny Hekker (6) after kicking his game winning 54 yard field goal during overtime against the San Francisco 49ers at the Edward Jones Dome. St. Louis defeated San Francisco 16-13 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Rams Training Camp Countdown: Evaluating the Specialists

Each weekday from now until Rams rookies report to training camp on July 21st, we’ll be profiling a Rams position group. Today we look at the specialists.

The St. Louis Rams will look to continue their dominance in the area of special teams during the 2014 season, particularly with a punt team that set an NFL record with a net average of 44.2 yards for the season. Their trio of young specialists, including 2013 Pro Bowl punter Johnny Hekker, kicker Greg Zuerlein, and long snapper Jake McQuaide, are all relatively secure in their roles, and they’ll hope to get even better this year.

Obviously the punt team was historically great in 2013, but special teams coach John Fassel put things bluntly during OTAs when asked how they would build on that success, saying “we’ve gotta beat it again…I think seven or eight players on our punt team were rookies, and they’re coming back, so I’d expect us to do better.” Wide receiver Stedman Bailey, a major contributor as a gunner on the team for much of 2013, will be off of that unit for at least the first four games due to a drug suspension and possibly longer if he secures playing time on offense, but running back Isaiah Pead figures to fill that role and have success.

Having Hekker leading the punt unit obviously is the biggest factor, and if he continues to deliver booming punts downfield as he did last year, when he averaged 46.3 yards on his kicks, only had four touchbacks on 78 punts, and was able to pin the opponent inside the 20-yard line on 19 occasions, the punt team should have a great shot to be successful again.

Punter Bobby Cowan is also on the roster as a “camp leg”, but he has virtually no chance to make the 53-man roster unless something happens to Hekker. He’ll likely take a load of Hekker’s shoulders (or foot) during training camp practices and early preseason games.

Third-year placekicker Greg Zuerlein returns, and he’ll aim to continue being the steady presence that he’s been since the Rams drafted him in 2012. After a rookie season that started off extremely well, with him making his first 15 field goal attempts, but ended with him only making 50 percent of his remaining attempts, Zuerlein was very reliable in his sophomore season, converting on 26 of his 28 attempts. On the flip side, though, Zuerlein only made two field goals of over 50 yards in 2013, compared to 13 as a rookie. Zuerlein has also been perfect in the other facets of the kicking game, as he’s a career 60-for-60 on extra point attempts and has been dominant on kickoffs.

McQuaide will return for his fourth year as the Rams’ long snapper. He’s been extremely reliable since arriving as an undrafted free agent from Ohio State in 2011. He’ll be entering the second season of a five-year, $4.055 million-dollar contract. The Rams also have Canadian long snapper Jorgen Hus on the training camp roster for the second straight year, although he’s probably only around so Zuerlein and Hekker both have a snapper to work with during camp practices and so that McQuaide can have his workload lessened.

In the return game, 2013 first-rounder Tavon Austin figures to be a big part of things, though Fassel expressed a desire to reduce his exposure on kick returns this year. He praised Pead’s ability to contribute as a kick returner, while also mentioning wide receivers Chris Givens, Justin Veltung, and Diontae Spencer, cornerback Greg Reid, and running back Tre Mason as candidates to fill the kick return role. Running back Benny Cunningham was the Rams’ primary kick returner early in the 2013 season and could also be a possibility.

Austin figures to be the primary punt returner. Veltung took over for him following his injury last year, though he didn’t experience a whole lot of success. If he makes the roster, wide receiver Austin Pettis will also be a possibility as a backup punt returner.

On the Rams’ coverage teams, they should have some nice experienced depth, though Fassel emphasized during OTAs that special teams are a great area for young, unheralded players to prove themselves and make the roster, saying, “over the past two years, I went back and checked the depth chart, and there were a lot of guys that started out as (third-stringers)— Rodney McLeod, Daren Bates, Ray Ray Armstrong, Cody Davis—that started for us, really, all of last season.” The players he mentioned, as well as Pead and cornerback Brandon McGee, figure to be some of the key players on the special teams units. A few others could end up being significant pieces of those units under certain circumstances, including running back Chase Reynolds if he makes the team and Bailey if he doesn’t play a key offensive role after his suspension. Obviously their roles will be determined by the makeup of the roster, but a few rookies who have chances to emerge as important special teams contributors in 2014 include safety Mo Alexander, cornerback E.J. Gaines, and defensive end Michael Sam.

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Tags: 2014 NFL Training Camp Greg Zuerlein Jacob McQuaide Johnny Hekker St. Louis Rams

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