For the Los Angeles Rams and new Special Teams Coordinator Chase Blackburn, it will be a redux of Romper Room. You know, the show that had a group of youngsters scurrying around and participating in exercises, songs, story-telling and moral lessons. Now, just add competing for kicking and long snapper specialist roles. Things could easily change, but for now, it’s two rookies seeking the placekicker prize and one each at punter and long snapper. Turf Show Times has already given a quick introduction to Round 7 pick, punter Ethan Evans, so let’s meet the undrafted specialist’s.
Place kicker Tanner Brown, Oklahoma State- 6’ 1” / 177 lbs.
Prospect from Saugus, just up the I-5 freeway. Played two JC seasons at College of the Canyons before walking on at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas for one. Wanting to prove his mettle against top competition, Brown sent tapes and politicked special team coaches across the the nation. The Oklahoma State Cowboys were the only team to respond and invited him to walk on. It turned out to be the right move for both parties.
Brown began the 2021 season as the kickoff specialist, but after four games, took over field goal and extra point duties. For the season, he converted 17 of 21 (81%) field goals, including a stellar 14 of 15 inside 40 yards. He was perfect on extra points, 36 for 36. In his biggest games, the Big 12 Championship and Fiesta Bowl, he converted six of seven field goals. On kickoffs for the season, Brown averaged 63.3 yards per kick with 37 touchbacks on 81 boots.
As a 2022 Super Senior, he began the season being voted a team captain and closed the year nominated for the Burlsworth Award as best FBS player who began as a walk on and was a semifinalist for the Lou Groza Award heralding the top collegiate placekicker. To garner these honors, Brown converted 22 of 23 field goals (95.7%). Six of those tallies came fro 40+ yards and he also put 42 of 42 extra point through the uprights. Was part of a three man rotation on kickoffs and was limited to only 21 kickoffs, averaging 63.8 yards per boot with six touchbacks.
Brown has some versatility as a punter, as well. At JC, he had 73 punts for 2558 yards and at UNLV, he punted 12 times for an average of 45.5 yards per kick.
Place kicker Christopher Dunn, North Carolina State- 5’ 8” / 175 lbs.
Won the 2022 Lou Groza Award as the nation’s best placekicker and was also named a First Team All-American. Not a big player with booming leg, Dunn excels at short range accuracy. Over his five seasons and 61 games, he knocked through 96 of 113 field goals, a 85% clip and suffered only two blocks. He was also perfect on 199 extra points.
While he converted 73 of 79 (92.4%) field goals from 0 to 39 yards. Things start to change when you begin to account for his long range game. He drops to 21 of 27 from 40-49 yards (77.8 %), although it should be reported that his long distance efficiency improved over his time at North Carolina State and he nailed 8 of 9 from this distance in 2022. He wasn’t called on for many long kicks and settled 4 of 10 from 50+ yards.
Dunn will have work to do on kickoffs. In his five college seasons he was never able to win the kickoff job and had less than five total kickoffs. Lance Zierlein at NFL.com says that his, “slow operation time will result in blocked kicks as a pro”.
At the NFL Combine, Dunn was amongst six of the top placekicking prospects invited to work out and was the only kicker to hit on all 11 of his kicks. The try’s were from 30 to 55 yards and attempted from both hashes and directly head on.
Long snapper Alex Ward, Central Florida- 6’ 4” / 240 lbs
Long snappers are not noticed until they do something wrong, they toil in anonymity until the day when one of their snaps goes awry. But when a team finds a good one, he can have a long career. For the Rams, Jake McQuaide handled the job for 11 years, from 2011 through 2021 and Matthew Orzech, an NFL vagabond with six different teams, handled the duties in 2022 before moving on to the Green Bay Packers.
L.A. signed one of college football’s most highly regarded snappers in Ward. The 24 year-old played six college seasons and over his 40 games as a starter, he was not charged with a blown snap. He was a two-time finalist for the Patrick Mannelly Award as top long snapper in the nation and grabbed second and third team Phil Steele All-American honors in ‘21 and ‘22.
Lance Zierlein of NFL.com offers caveats, claiming that he has “below average velocity on deep snaps” and “deep snaps feature in inconsistent spiral and placement. In what little film I could find, he looks consistent on his punt snaps and as the only long snapper invited to the NFL Combine, showed he could best the NFL average long snap time of .750 of a second.
Who makes the team?
For Alex Ward, the path today is likely, he’s the only long snapper under contract. The Rams will likely bring in someone for competition, but it appears they need to redo a veteran contract to be able to afford that last handful of open roster spots.
Separating the kickers is little more difficult. Pretty close to a toss up and camp competition should be fierce. It appears to me that Tanner Brown should have the inside track, his short accuracy numbers are solid, has the stronger leg, is experienced at kicking off, and could be pressed into service as an emergency punter. In fact his kickoff average depth rivals that of ex-Ram Matt Gay. He worked off an artificial surface
Christopher Dunn, on the other hand, played his home games on real grass. Deadly from 40 yards in, he accuracy trails off above that. It should be noted that he improved his distance accuracy greatly as a senior. He didn’t kickoff in college, so that needs to be considered in the final decision. Was it because of a supposed weak leg? Or did the Wolfpack have boomer legs on the roster?
While, the Rams are certainly off to a good start by having the top specialist prospects in camp, fans should expect some growing pains. Having inexperienced rookies manning the long snapper, punter, and placekicker roles, expectations should be tempered, no matter how things eventually shake out.