You might not have noticed it, but the Rams special teams actually improved last year.
According to Football Outsiders DVOA, the Rams overall ST rank moved from 31st to 27th with their DVOA jumping from -4.4% to -4.3%. The return game, which should have seen a boost with last season's addition of Dante Hall, went from -13.7% to -7.6% DVOA. Hall played just 7 games, returning 29 kicks for an average of 25.1 yards per return. Overall, the Rams averaged 23.6 yards per kick return, a big jump from their 21.3 yard average the year before. While Hall disappointed to some extent, rookie Derek Stanley (another Rams 7th round pick) impressed, returning 20 kicks in three games for an average of 25.5 yards per return.
What about the return situation this year? Right now, Hall is penciled in to return kicks, but he's not any younger and therefore no less prone to injury. Cap-wise, Hall is due $1.978 million from the Rams this season, the last of his contract. To some, cutting Hall makes sense. That leaves kick returns to Derek Stanley, impressive in a small sample size, but relatively inexperienced. Of the two WRs taken in the draft this year, 4th round pick, Keenan Burton out of Kentucky, ranked 2nd in the SEC in returns in 2006, picking up 765 yards and a TD on 31 attempts. Last season, one shortened by injury, he averaged 24+ yards on 28 returns.
Donnie Avery returned kicks for Houston, averaging 28 yards on just 15 returns last season. Here's what his NFL.com draft profile said about his propensity to return kicks in the NFL:
Has very good torso flexibility on returns and also possesses the speed, elusiveness, and agility to be a good return specialist at the next level.
So, he could certainly have an impact there, but, to me, his future is toward the top of the Rams WR depth chart. Bottom line, the Rams don't really need Hall for returns, but may be hard pressed to part ways with him given his experience and the lack thereof among the other candidates.
Ok, so we talk lots about returns, but what about kick offs and punts? Those are important too. Kickoffs hurt the Rams more than any other ST unit. Last season they had a -18.6% DVOA, virtually guaranteeing opponents good field position on kickoffs. And starting the defense off already in the hole. The punt unit, much improved with the addition of Donnie Jones, had a 2.8 DVOA. Last season, the kickoff unit had a -16.0% DVOA and a the punt unit had a 0.0 DVOA.
Seventh round picks Chris Chamberlin and David Vobora are being counted on to improve special teams with their speed and athletic ability, and by all accounts they should be able to do that. Besides those two, the Rams will have to have improved play from the other members of those units, guys like Jonathan Wade, Todd Johnson, Culberson, McGarigle and Chris Draft.