Entering last offseason, the Rams found themselves in unusual territory with their special teams.
Punter Donnie Jones was scheduled for unrestricted free agency and kicker Josh Brown was coming off a tough year and still had a fairly large salary cap number heading into the 2012 season.
Two of the few positions that had been stable for the Rams in the preceding years were suddenly headed toward becoming question marks.
New special teams coach John Fassel was charged with finding younger replacements and spent considerable time in the weeks leading up to the draft seeking out the right players.
Jones departed for Houston relatively early in free agency and Brown remained on the roster while the Rams sought a player they believed would represent an upgrade.
In his travels, Fassel met a young kicker from a tiny school in western Missouri who instantly impressed. Little did he know that kicker would eventually become a rookie sensation armed with not just a nickname but a handful of them.
Meanwhile, in the pacific northwest, Fassel came across a punter who not only had the leg and directional punting skills he covets but an impressive right arm capable of adding a sneaky dimension to the Rams’ punting game.
Within hours after the completion of April’s NFL Draft, the Rams had committed to turning over their kicking and punting duties to a pair of rookies. They drafted kicker
Coach Jeff Fisher expressed no fear about going into the season with a pair of rookies in those specialist roles and he was mostly rewarded for his faith.
Zuerlein – who also goes by nicknames such as ‘Young G.Z.,’ ‘Legatron’ and ‘Greg the Leg’ was an instant fan favorite for his ability to make kicks from obscene distances. In the team’s open scrimmage at the Edward Jones Dome, Zuerlein knocked in kicks from 60 yards-plus and stole the show.
That performance wasn’t a fluke as Zuerlein opened the season by setting a franchise rookie record by converting his first 15 field goal attempts. Along the way, he twice set the franchise record for longest field goal (58 and 60 yards) and earned NFC Special Teams Player of the Week honors for hitting all four of his attempts (58, 48, 60, 24) in a win against Seattle in week 4.
In the Rams’ week 13 win against San Francisco, Zuerlein again earned NFC Special Teams Player of the Week honors as he kicked a 53-yard field goal to send the game into overtime followed by a 54-yarder to win it in overtime.
All told, Zuerlein hit 23-of-31 field goals on the year, including seven from 50-plus yards which ranks second all time among NFL rookies.
Hekker, who became fast friends and roommates with Zuerlein fared quite well in his own right. He finished his rookie season with a 45.8 yard gross average with a net of 39.9, both good for fourth in franchise history.
Against Arizona in week 5, Hekker earned some hardware of his own as he averaged 56.9 yards per punt for a team record in a game with a net of 46 yards on seven tries as the Rams shutdown arch nemesis Patrick Peterson. That was enough to earn Hekker the NFC Special Teams Player of the Week only a week after Zuerlein earned his first.
And, much to Fisher’s enjoyment, Hekker’s ability to throw the ball turned into quite a valuable asset. He completed all three of his pass attempts on the season for 42 yards and a touchdown as the Rams used him on fake punts and field goals.
With free agency set to begin on March 12, there are some intriguing names expected to hit the market but don’t expect the Rams to have any interest. They believe they have dynamic kicking duo in place for the foreseeable future.
1. Rob Bironas, Tennessee: Still booming ‘em at 35. Unlikely he’ll leave the Titans.
2. Lawrence Tynes, New York Giants: Automatic inside 50 yards but not asked to do much from long distance. Strong year in 2012, though.
3. Phil Dawson, Cleveland: Long one of the league’s best kickers, Dawson is still accurate and deadly from just about any distance.
4. Steven Hauschka, Seattle: Much like Tynes, he’s accurate inside 50 yards but doesn’t do much from deep.
5. Jason Hanson, Detroit: He’s 43 but still productive. Converted almost 90 percent last season. A treasure in Mo Town, Hanson isn’t likely to be changing addresses.
1. Kevin Huber, Cincinnati: Came on strong in 2012 and finished in the top five in the league in net punting.
2. Dustin Colquitt, Kansas City: Unlikely the Chiefs will let him walk after he’s been so consistent early in his career. Slight dip in 2012 but still solid.
3. Pat McAfee, Indianapolis: Solid performance in 2012 but many believe he can be one of the league’s best punters. Colts will work to keep him.
4. Donnie Jones, Houston: Former Ram went to the Texans and finished in the middle of the pack in 2012 in major punting categories.
5. Reggie Hodges, Cleveland: Another former Ram had been up and down in his career before settling with the Browns.
Rams Free Agents: None.