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Rams might have a leg up again with Zuerlein back

Rams might have a leg up again with Zuerlein back
Rams kicker Greg Zuerlein (4) at the Rams training camp on the Campus of the University of California Irvine on Friday. (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

The first kicked ball sailed through the uprights. So did the next four, before one from nearly 50 yards just missed wide left.

It took all of three minutes during a field goal drill, but Rams kicker Greg Zuerlein showed during Saturday’s practice at UC Irvine that his surgically repaired back and right leg are sound.

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That qualified as a huge benchmark for Zuerlein and for a Rams team that is in the preseason Super Bowl conversation.

“Went well and had fun,” Zuerlein said after kicking in a competitive situation for the first time since December surgery.

Zuerlein, a seventh-year pro, is arguably as important to the Rams’ success as any of the team’s stars on offense.

Despite being sidelined for the final two-regular season games and a playoff loss last season, Zuerlein scored a league-leading 158 points for a team that averaged a league-best 29.9 points a game and won the NFC West.

The kicker known as Legatron, Greg the Leg and Mr. Automatic made 38 of 40 field-goal attempts. He kicked seven field goals in a 35-30 victory at Dallas.

Coach Sean McVay said it “looked like the old Greg,” after watching him Saturday.

“I don’t think anybody really realizes, myself included, how much pain he was really fighting through and the production he was able to have last year,” McVay said. “So I know that’s a big weight off him.”

The Rams re-signed kicker Sam Ficken as an insurance policy in case Zuerlein falters. But Zuerlein appears on track to return at full strength after being held out of most organized-team activities and then attempting a few kicks in noncompetitive situations during minicamp.

“I feel ready to go,” said Zuerlein, who carries a salary-cap number of about $3.6 million according to overthecap.com. “It’s process to get my kicking form back to where I need for games, but physically, I feel good.

“The craft right now is not ideally where you want it to be to hit the ball perfectly every time. But that’s what camp’s for, to get ready for the regular season.”

Zuerlein, punter Johnny Hekker and kick returner Pharoh Cooper all were voted to the Pro Bowl last season. Long snapper Jake McQuaide also was selected.

Zuerlein’s reliability makes it easier for McVay the play-caller because Zuerlein can be called upon once the Rams’ cross an opponent’s 45-yard line. Zuerlein made six of seven attempts from 50 yards or farther last season.

“You certainly want to try and finish those drives with touchdowns,” McVay said, “but when you have a guy like Greg that can hit from so far out consistently, it certainly is something that makes you feel good.”

No tackling

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Veterans such as running back Todd Gurley, offensive linemen Andrew Whitworth and Rodger Saffold, defensive linemen Michael Brockers and Ndamukong Suh and cornerback Aqib Talib were given the day off as the Rams prepared for Sunday first practice in pads.

The intensity is expected to increase, but the Rams will not tackle.

“Want to try to make sure we’re getting that physicality, but also limiting the risk for injury,” McVay said, adding. “But,we’ll ramp it up a little bit.”

Etc.

Suh, cornerback Sam Shields, linebacker Cory Littleton and tight ends Gerald Everett and Tyler Higbee are among the players that have stood out during three practices, McVay said…. Defensive tackle Aaron Donald remains absent because of a contract dispute. McVay said he spoke by phone with Donald, “just yesterday or two days ago. These days I don’t even know what today is…. We’re just checking in, seeing how he’s doing. With regards to some of the specifics, that’s not really what our dialogue entails. Aaron knows how much I love him, we love him as an organization and want him to be here. But, we also respect and understand exactly what’s going on.”… As the NFL and NFL Players’ Assn. continue to work out a policy for the national anthem, McVay said “we don’t anticipate any issues with that.” He said he would address the subject again with his team before the preseason opener at Baltimore on Aug. 9.

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