(Note: If you haven’t checked out my other articles in the positional breakdown series I highly recommend you do so)
The easiest 2020 positional breakdown article to be featured on Downtown Rams will, in all likelihood, cover the special teams unit. Outside of Coach Bones leaving for the Dallas Cowboys, no significant changes are expected unless the next special teams coach decides to go in a different direction.
Last year, the Rams had Johnny Hekker at punter, and Greg “The Leg” Zuerlein at kicker.
Johnny Hekker: Punter
What can be said for Johnny Hekker going into the 2020 season? Just to be his usual self as the Rams punter is going into his ninth NFL season, all with the Rams.
Last year Hekker averaged 47.4 yards per punt (ypp), ranking 5th in the league, only 0.5 ypp less than his career year back in 2015. He punted 23 more times in 2019 compared to his 43 total punts in 2018, when the Rams went to the Super Bowl. This increase can be attributed to the offense struggling for most of the season, but Hekker put on a clinic when it came to switching field of play. He had 31 punts pinned inside the 20, tied for 15th in the league. Hekker also continued to flash his trademark fake punt ability, making him a real weapon at punter.
Hekker is under contract until 2023 when he becomes a UFA, so unless he is a salary cap casualty ($4.7M) it’s a lock that Hekker will be in Inglewood this year for the Rams.
Greg Zuerlein: Kicker
The 2019 season would be considered a down year for Greg “The Leg” Zuerlein. He went 24 for 33 (72.7% FG%) on field goal attempts with his longest being 58 yards. Last year wasn’t his worst season in terms of field goal percentage (2015: 66.7%), but that’s not ideal for a Rams team primed for another playoff run next year.
Zuerlein was lights out from 20-39 yards (14 of 15), but where he struggled was from 40-50+ yards out where he was 10 of 18 combined. Although, while the raw stats say that he had a down year compared to the rest of the league, Zuerlein was still a top 10 kicker. He was ranked 5th with PAT’s made with 42 along with being ranked 7th in field goal attempts with 33. Unfortunately, he was also ranked 15th in the league with 24 field goals made.
All in all, it wasn’t a bad season for Zuerlein but there’s a chance for a comeback year in 2020. While Zuerlein is a UFA, there’s a case to be made for the Rams to re-sign him because he’s a near-elite kicker when healthy and, like Hekker, he’s been riding with the Rams since 2012. Although, with Bones leaving for Dallas and a new coach coming in, that opens the case for him to leave and join another team elsewhere (especially if a raise is involved).
Possible Free Agent Acquisitions:
Zane Gonzalez (2019 Arizona Cardinals) $600K
8th Ranked Kicker (Free Agent Forecast, PFF)
One possible player that the Los Angeles Rams could look into this offseason is Zane Gonzalez of the Cardinals. As a restricted free agent (RFA), the Cardinals can choose to tender him but if they don’t, the Rams should come calling.
He is the highest ranked free agent kicker going into the 2020 season (Zuerlein was ranked 9th by PFF) and he would be a good fit for the Rams. In 16 games, Gonzalez went 31 for 35 (88.6%) on field goals while going 34 for 35 on PAT. He was a seventh round pick back in 2017 for the Cleveland Browns but seemed to find his way when joining the Cardinals in 2019. He is 24 years old compared to Zuerlein who is 32 years old right now.
Last year, Gonzalez only made $600K compared to Zuerlein’s $2.25M contract. The age difference and the contract difference could be a possible sway point for the Rams if they want to go in a different direction for a kicker.
When it comes to the special teams, it’s almost for certain (barring any salary cap ramifications) that Johnny Hekker will be back as the team’s punter. Greg Zuerlein being a UFA this off-season is a bit more complicated, as it raises the question within the Rams front office to either re-sign him or possibly look to another younger and cheaper kicker. If they are working on a youth movement for coaches, what’s to say that they won’t for players as well?
It’s going to be interesting to see what happens with that room, especially since long-time special teams coach Bones is in Dallas and as of this article a new special teams coach has not yet been announced.