The Los Angeles Rams’ special teams squad did not shine in 2019 like they did the previous season. They were inconsistent on kicking, punting and returning, but there were a few highlights. Several star players returned this season. Kicker Greg Zuerlein, punter Johnny Hekker, long snapper Jake McQuaide and returner JoJo Natson resumed their usual roles. They performed well overall, but some could not make clutch plays in certain situations. Those calls fall on former special teams coach John Fassel. Fassel recently took a special teams position with the Dallas Cowboys.
Greg Zuerlein, 8-Year Pro, UFA
Zuerlein proved to be a pivotal part of the Rams scoring power last season. Players and fans will not forget his clutch kick in the NFC Championship game, sending the Rams to Super Bowl LVIII. He also put the only points on the board against the New England Patriots with a 53-yard field goal. Unfortunately, in 2019, Zuerlein was out of character. He missed several field goals in the regular season. Zuerlein converted 24/33 field goal attempts and made all 42 of his extra points. His long was a 58-yarder against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 4. His field goal percentage was the lowest in four seasons, although he contributed 114 points in 2019. It was the third most points scored in eight seasons with the Rams. What is surprising is that most of the missed kicks were not over 50 yards. They were between 40-49 yards where he was 5 for 11. One was a missed 44-yard field goal that would have given the Rams the win over the Seattle Seahawks in Week 5.
Zuerlein just finished out a 3-year, $6.75 million contract this season. He is now an unrestricted free agent. One would hope to see “Legatron” back in action with the Rams next season. If the Rams front office believes he is regressing, they may shop him around for another placekicker. If they decide to keep him, the question is are they willing to shell out a generous contract. Other teams would be interested in acquiring him as well. Zuerlein is still a good kicker who is strong on converting long-range kicks. He will need to work on his mid-range field goals this offseason if he wants to continue with the Rams. The Rams may take that risk and re-sign him, hoping he will be clutch come game time.
Johnny Hekker, 8-year Pro, 4-Year/$15,564,715 Contract (remaining)
Hekker has proven to be a reliable punter for the Rams. He may not have played as well as he did in the 2018 season, but he pulled off a few nice punts throughout 2019. This season, he had 66 punts with a punting average of 47.4 yards. He punted 23 more times this season than he did in 2018, but also had three more touchbacks this year. His average was one full point better than last season and included a long of 71 yards. He landed 22 of his punts inside the 20 yard-line.
Hekker is known for his trick plays in the punt formation, and fans anticipate a successful first down conversion every time, although that is unrealistic. This year, he converted one incredible trick play against the Atlanta Falcons. It was a 23-yard pass to safety Nick Scott for a first down against the Falcons in Week 7. The Rams won 37-10. In Week 9, he had a failed conversion against the Pittsburgh Steelers resulting in an interception. The Rams suffered an embarrassing 17-12 loss. Hekker also botched a few punts toward the end of the season.
The Rams would be wise to keep Hekker, especially after signing a 5-year, $18.8 million contract extension this season that goes until 2024. He is also a solid holder for Zuerlein and can even placekick in a jam.
Jake McQuaide, 9-year Pro, 1-year/$975,000 Contract (remaining)
There is not much to say about McQuaide except that he is a strong and consistent long snapper. The Rams need to keep him on their special teams. McQuaide (along with Zuerlein and Hekker) is one of six remaining former St. Louis Rams players still on the team. He had the third most snaps of his career with 156 in 2019. He has 1,207 for his career and does not show signs of slowing down.
The Rams would be wise to keep McQuaide for as long as possible. He is finishing his final year of a 3-year, $3,525,000 million contract. McQuaide will be an unrestricted free agent in 2021.
JoJo Natson, 3-year Pro, RFA
Natson could not break away for any huge returns with any consistency throughout the season. In his defense, new league rules for kickoffs make it even more difficult to do returns since they are designed to prevent injuries. An injury plagued Natson toward the end of the season resulted in rookie running back Darrell Henderson and receiver Nsimba Webster to takeover return duties. Natson is fast on kickoff and punt returns, although he has still made some poor decisions. He learned from last season and improved slightly. He had 19 punt returns for 149 yards with a long of 35 and 13 kick returns for 289 yards with a long of 30.
Natson finished a 1-year, $645,000 contract. The Rams may let him walk. If he is re-signed with the Rams, then they will decide his status as a returner.
Nsimba Webster, 1-year Pro, ERFA
Webster had two kick returns for 57 yards and seven punt returns for 18 yards. He was a good fill-in returner coming off the practice squad. Webster finished a 1-year, $495,000 rookie contract and is an exclusive rights free agent. He is a good potential player for the Rams to keep next season. He is reliable as a returner and versatile to play receiver should the Rams need him.
Darrell Henderson, 1-year Pro, 3-year/$2,626,349 Contract (remaining)
Henderson filled in as a kick returner and had three returns for 58 yards with a long of 23. The rookie running back has speed and versatility and proved that as a returner toward the end of the season.
Henderson signed a 4-year, $4.212 million contract through 2023. His running back stats are not too bad given his opportunities behind Todd Gurley and Malcolm Brown. Look for the Rams to hold onto him for a while and continue to develop him into a future replacement for Brown or Gurley. As a specialist, he may still get opportunities next season.
What’s Next for Special Teams?
After losing John Fassel at the helm of the special teams squad, the Rams will need to find a replacement soon. Fassel is a huge loss, despite making a few questionable calls this season. Fassel was still a huge part of the Rams’ special teams success and the players liked Coach “Bones.” The 2019 Rams special teams struggled a bit but will have a good future if they can figure how to restructure the operation. They will be keeping a few starters for sure. They may also look elsewhere for potential contributors.