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Rams

Rams special teams rebuild starts with finding Greg Zuerlein replacement

Kicker Greg Zuerlein and special teams coach John Fassel both left the Rams for jobs with the Cowboys.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

As the Rams prepare for the NFL draft, The Times will examine their roster. Part 5 of 10: Special teams.

The Rams’ search to replace longtime kicker Greg Zuerlein took a turn Monday when the team agreed to terms with Lirim Hajrullahu, who played six seasons in the Canadian Football League, and Austin MacGinnis, a former XFL kicker.

Zuerlein played eight seasons for the Rams. He signed a free-agent contract with the Dallas Cowboys, reuniting with former Rams special teams coordinator John Fassel.

Rams general manager Les Snead intimated last week that finding Zuerlein’s successor would be challenging.

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“Any time you’ve got to begin the kicking situation over, it’s always [tough] — even as a general manager you’re jumping in a pool where you’re not necessarily an expert because kicking is such a specialty and we had such consistency with Greg,” Snead said.

Snead said the Rams were looking for someone “similar” to Zuerlein.

Because Michael Brockers returned after the Rams signed A’Shawn Robinson, stalwart defensive tackle Aaron Donald has a surplus of support on the interior line.

“And by similar I mean, someone that can be around a long time because with Greg, he had some superpowers,” Snead said. “The ability to kick from 50-plus was a superpower.”

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Hajrullahu, 29, played for Winnipeg, Toronto and Hamilton in the CFL and converted kicks from 50 yards or more every season. In 2019, he made 47 of 55 field-goal attempts for Hamilton, including one from a career-long 56 yards.

In 2017, his 32-yard field goal with 53 seconds left gave Toronto a 27-24 victory over Calgary in the Grey Cup.

MacGinnis, 24, made 10 of 10 field-goal attempts for the Dallas Renegades before the XFL shut down operations. MacGinnis played in college at Kentucky and also played for Memphis in the defunct Alliance of American Football.

New Rams special teams coordinator John Bonamego will oversee units that include four-time Pro Bowl punter Johnny Hekker and veteran long-snapper Jake McQuaide.

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Hekker last week was named to the NFL’s All-Decade Team for the 2010s. In 2019, he averaged 47.4 yards per punt.

Receiver Nsimba Webster is on track to return punts. Webster, an undrafted free agent in 2019, replaced JoJo Natson late last season after Natson suffered a hamstring injury. Natson finished the season on injured reserve and was released in March.

Rams no longer have three productive linebackers from last season on the roster, meaning young players and NFL draft picks will have to help fill that void.

The Rams must replace two key veterans who established themselves as special teams standouts. Linebacker Cory Littleton signed a $35-million contract with the Las Vegas Raiders that includes $22 million in guarantees, according to overthecap.com. The Rams did not re-sign veteran linebacker Bryce Hager.

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Under contract for 2020: Hekker ($4.7 million), McQuaide ($1.1 million), Webster ($675,000).

Free agents: Neither Hajrullahu nor MacGinnis is the answer as Zuerlein‘s replacement but they are starting points. The Rams re-signed cornerback Dont’e Deayon, who played on special teams.

Draft: The Rams have seven picks in the draft. Fassel successfully mined lower rounds for special teams prospects and also developed undrafted free agents standouts. Can Bonamego do the same?

Roster decisions: Hekker’s contract runs through the 2023 season. McQuaide is in the final year of his contract.

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NEXT: Tight ends.


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