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Rams draft analysis: Key special teams positions set; some questions remain

Rams draft analysis: Key special teams positions set; some questions remain
Rams kicker Greg Zuerlein is embraced by punter Johnny Hekker after hitting a 57-yard field goal in overtime to defeat the Saints 26-23 in the NFC Championship at the Superdome on Jan 20, 2019. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

As the Rams prepare for the NFL draft, The Times will examine their roster. Part 4 of 8: Special teams.

They are preparing for their eighth season as teammates, an eternity in the modern NFL.

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Rams kicker Greg Zuerlein, punter Johnny Hekker and snapper Jake McQuaide have been among the NFL’s most consistent special teams players for nearly a decade.

Theirs are not positions of need as reed-thin special teams coordinator John Fassel — who goes by the nickname “Bones” — and the Rams prepare for the April 25-27 draft.

“I keep saying, ‘Bones, when do we got to do special teams again?’ ” general manager Les Snead said, chuckling. “He said, ‘It will be a few years.’ ”

Zuerlein, however, is entering the final year of his contract.

He goes into the season having made some of the biggest kicks in franchise history last season, including the game-winning field goal in overtime against the New Orleans Saints in the NFC championship game at New Orleans.

Zuerlein, sidelined five games because of a groin injury, made 27 of 31 field-goal attempts in 2018.

It was quite a comeback for a player who underwent back surgery late in the 2017 season.

Hekker, a four-time Pro Bowl player, remains one of the league’s top punters and also is a versatile play-making threat as a passer. Last season, he averaged 46.3 yards per punt, and completed two of four passes during the regular season and one pass in the playoffs.

Kick returner JoJo Natson was released at the end of training camp last year, but the Rams re-signed him after the first game because 2017 Pro Bowl returner Pharoh Cooper suffered an ankle injury in the opener against the Oakland Raiders. Natson averaged 10.8 yards per punt return and also averaged 18 yards for six kickoffs. Blake Countess averaged 24.6 yards per kickoff return.

By the time Cooper returned from surgery, Natson had established himself as a reliable and productive player. Cooper was unable to recapture his 2017 form and was released in December when the Rams needed roster space to bolster running back depth and signed C.J. Anderson.

Under contract for 2019: Punter Johnny Hekker ($4 million), kicker Greg Zuerlein ($2.6 million), snapper Jake McQuaide ($1.25 million), returner JoJo Natson ($645,000).

Free agents: Three special teams stalwarts from 2018 — Sam Shields, Ramik Wilson and Bryce Hager — are on the market. It remains to be seen whether the Rams will try to attract versatile veterans with special teams experience or simply continue to develop young players on the roster.

Draft: The Rams have seven picks in the draft. Special teams capabilities and potential will weigh into the equation, as they will for undrafted free agents.

Roster decisions: The Rams matched an offer sheet that running back Malcolm Browns signed with the Detroit Lions. Brown has been one of the Rams’ top special teams players.

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NEXT: Offensive line.

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