The Los Angeles Rams are set to start an all-rookie special teams unit this season. Between Tanner Brown at kicker, Ethan Evans at punter, Alex Ward handling the long-snapper duties, and Puka Nacua returning punts, the Rams have no NFL experience on special teams. In the NFL, special teams doesn’t matter until it does. The Rams can roll out an all-rookie special teams unit, but what happens when they inevitably begin to make rookie mistakes?
As rookies, at some point the mistakes are going to happen. That’s inevitable. When the Rams went with a rookie kicker in 2020, the Sam Sloman experiment didn’t exactly work out to say the least. The Rams ended up cutting Sloman following Week 7 after missing his third field-goal of the season. Greg Zuerlein missed eight field goals in his rookie year which included a game against the Miami Dolphins in which he went 2-for-5. Zuerlien made just 74.2 percent of his field goals as a rookie.
Rams special teams coach Chase Blackburn touched on this in training camp and the challenges of having an all-rookie special teams unit. Blackburn said,
“They all have their own personalities, their own things that make them tick, and areas to improve and those type of deals. But, one of the things that (we) were really adamant about was making sure we got the right guys, the right personalities, the right makeup, mentally and physically between all of them to mesh them right. I think they have done that, and they’ve shown that, and the ability to bounce and respond from different things, good and bad, right? If you keep hitting punts, great balls, you keep making field goals, you can’t get complacent, right? The same thing happens if you miss one. You can’t all of a sudden say, ‘well, I’ve got to change everything I’ve done.’ Trust your technique. It’s all about your mental makeup in the specialist position. I think that’s the biggest key moving forward is making sure their mental and physical preparation stays the same.”
Given that the Rams are re-tooling year, this group will likely be afforded more chances than they would have gotten in past years. It’s going to be important for their development to grow and find their identity as a unit together.
Still, what if Brown misses an extra-point or two during a game and misses a field goal? How do the Rams respond to that situation, especially if it’s in a game-altering situation? What happens the first time that Ethan Evans shanks a punt or out-kicks his punt coverage?
The Rams have had bad luck at punt returner, opting to have Cooper Kupp return punts at times. Do the Rams turn to Kupp if Nacua muffs a punt early on? Nacua has handled everything that the team has thrown at him this offseason, but he never returned a punt in four years of college football.
Preseason is typically the time to experiment with special teams as the game don’t matter. However, the preseason is going to be an extremely important period for this group as it will be their first, live NFL action. When the mistakes happen, how much of a leash will these players have and where is the line? It’s currently a thin free agent market, but would the Rams look to sign a veteran like Robbie Gould or Ryan Succop for competition if Brown struggles?
It’s going to be a situation to monitor as the Rams take the field for the first time on Saturday night against the Los Angeles Chargers. Unless the situation gets really bad, it’s likely that the Rams allow their rookie special teams unit to learn through adversity.