EARTH CITY, Mo. -- In something of an annual St. Louis Rams tradition, the first day the team puts on the pads is always a special teams practice. It's also maybe the first and best true look at the players jockeying for spots at the bottom of the 53-man roster.
It might be overstating it a bit but only just a bit to say that jobs are won and lost in the first fullypadded special teams practice. But there is plenty of recent evidence that indicates the workout's importance.
In fact, special teams coach John Fassel offered his current crop of hopefuls a look at some of the recent example of those who have taken a simple Monday morning practice turned it into a job interview and then aced the test on their way to becoming core special teams players who stick around for multiple seasons.
"We showed that film yesterday and even 2012 with Eugene Sims and Rodney McLeod, Cory Harkey and 2013 was (Daren) Bates and Cody (Davis) and Chase (Reynolds) and Benny (Cunningham)," Fassel said. "Last year, Lamarcus (Joyner) and Marcus Roberson. Guys that kind of stand out in these kind of very high competition, very high speed, tons of space drills. You can kind of see who might project well to being on there on game day."
You can see it for two very simple reasons.
First, the Rams have a head coach in Jeff Fisher who puts a premium on strong special teams play, allowing for multiple practice days exclusively to work on them. Second, Fassel is a relentless teacher who puts his players in position to go one on one and see who is left standing when the dust settles.
Bates is, perhaps, the ultimate example of a little-known undrafted free agent who announced his presence in physical, dominant fashion in the first special teams practice. Two years ago, Bates found himself matched against incumbent linebacker Josh Hull, who was then considered a key piece on the core special teams units, in the drill known simply as "Compete."
The drill line up one blocker and one gunner next to each other with a pad located about 15 yards away. The goal for each player is simple: for the gunner, get to the pad as efficiently as possible. For the blocker, prevent the gunner from getting to the pad. It's a full contact drill that tests a player's will more than any single physical attribute.
Before the practice, Bates tweeted that he was going to go out and win a job. He manhandled Hull, igniting a couple of skirmishes as he informed Hull of how well he was doing. But the message was clear, and Bates is now an integral piece of multiple special teams units.
"I think about it because I always want to get better from where I started or where I was last year," Bates said. "There's a lot of things I can get better at and a lot of things I can strengthen up."
With that in mind, here's a few nuggets of those who might have helped themselves or solidified their spots with some of the action from Monday's practice:
Reynolds is perhaps one of the more underrated players on the Rams, consistently making the team and then going about his business as a core special teams player. He was his usual, solid self on Monday but actually drew plenty of cheers from teammates when he stonewalled linebacker Korey Toomer in a one-on-one drill. Reynolds is listed at 6 feet, 205 pounds and Toomer is listed at 6-2, 234 pounds but the size difference didn't matter. Reynolds barely budged.
Safety Maurice Alexander, whom Fisher has cited as one of his most improved players from organized team activities and early in this camp, also had a moment that drew some cheers when he took down receiver Bradley Marquez.
There was a little cornerback-on-cornerback crime during the "Compete" drill as Trumaine Johnson and Lamarcus Joyner mixed it up. Johnson, who is not afraid to chirp at an opponent or teammate, handled Joyner in a couple of matchups and spent a few moments after telling Joyner "you're too little." Joyner, who is about as tenacious as they come, immediately challenged Johnson to a rematch or two and told Johnson, "Let's go, we can go all day." Joyner fared better in subsequent matchups.
The Rams will have their first full-team, fully padded practice on Tuesday. It's scheduled for 4:30 p.m. ET and is open to the public.