As the Rams prepare for the NFL draft, the Los Angeles Times will examine their roster. Part 4 of 8: special teams.
No NFL team boasted better specialists than the Rams in 2017.
Kicker Greg Zuerlein, punter Johnny Hekker and returner Pharoh Cooper were voted to the Pro Bowl. Snapper Jake McQuaide also was subsequently selected for the second consecutive year.
But the Rams and special teams coordinator John Fassel are always on the lookout for players who can contribute when assessing draft prospects.
Cooper and fellow receiver Mike Thomas, selected in the 2016 draft, are recent examples of players who made their initial marks on special teams.
Third-year linebacker Cory Littleton, an undrafted free agent who could start alongside Mark Barron, is another who has made big special-teams plays.
The Rams open voluntary offseason workouts Monday with one major question regarding special teams: What is the condition of Zuerlein's surgically repaired back?
Zuerlein led the NFL in scoring last season with 158 points despite being sidelined the last two regular-season games and the playoff loss against the Atlanta Falcons. He had struggled through a victory at Seattle before being forced to undergo surgery.
With Zuerlein sidelined, the Rams signed Sam Ficken, a former Penn State kicker who had never attempted a regular-season kick in the NFL. Ficken struggled in his debut against the Tennessee Titans but finished strong in the division-clinching victory and was solid the rest of the way.
For insurance, in March the Rams put an exclusive free-agent tender on Ficken, meaning he cannot negotiate with other teams. Ficken is expected to be released or traded if Zuerlein's back proves sound.
Under contract: Kicker Greg Zuerlein ($3.5 million), kicker Sam Ficken ($480,000), punter Johnny Hekker ($2.6 million), snapper Jake McQuaide ($1.3 million), returner Pharoh Cooper ($768,000).
Free agents: The Rams might add players with NFL experience who can play special teams but they are more likely to mine undrafted rookie free agents. Fassel has a knack for identifying and developing players who earn a spot on special teams and work their way into larger roles.
Draft: With a total of eight picks in the third, fourth and sixth rounds, the Rams will be looking for versatile players who can contribute beyond their positions.
Roster decisions: The Rams re-signed McQuaide, keeping the trio of McQuaide, Zuerlein and Hekker intact for a seventh consecutive season. Zuerlein is signed through 2019, Hekker through 2022.
NEXT: Offensive line.