ST. LOUIS — As an undrafted free agent in 2013, Daren Bates figured he would have to excel on special teams if he were to land a spot on the St. Louis Rams' roster.
The linebacker from Auburn made a quick first impression and has been an anchor on special teams that have ranked among the NFL's best the last two seasons.
Other Rams have found prominent roles after first making the roster through special teams. Eugene Sims worked his way into the defensive line rotation and Rodney McLeod has become a starting safety. Bates burst on the scene in 2013 along with Chase Reynolds and Benny Cunningham. Last year, rookies Lamarcus Joyner and Marcus Roberson shined and figure to be in the mix in the secondary.
"They're a little different," special teams coach John Fassel said. "And probably like their coach, really all kind of crazy, a little whack. They're a little different, which is good. If you're not, then it's probably not for you."
In a move showing the team's commitment to special teams, the Rams on Dec. 5 signed punter Johnny Hekker to an $18 million contract extension with $9 million guaranteed — the largest amount ever guaranteed to a punter. The extension will keep the Pro Bowler in St. Louis through 2020.
"I just want to improve," Hekker said. "You come into camp feeling great physically, and refining technique is always something to be done. I think we're working very, very hard and we're quite a bit ahead of where we were in past years."
The Rams also boast a strong kicker in Greg Zuerlein, whose field-goal range is well past 50 yards.
Fassel said special teams may go unnoticed by fans.
"There's a lot of tricks to the trade of special teams that I think are unique to the game that we see on tape that the fans don't see," Fassel said. "So we practice those little things.
"The more reps and experience we have doing it, the better we get. So, we're only going into, really to me our third year as a group. And we play against teams that have more experience than that. So, hopefully in year three, four, five, six, we'll really take off."
The unit could be even more dangerous with Isaiah Pead returning from a torn ACL. Pead's speed gives the Rams another option alongside Cunningham on kick return.
More than anything, the unit has a mindset.
"For the guys in the building, this is life and death," long snapper Jake McQuaide said.
Though McQuaide is entering his fifth season as the Rams long snapper, like Bates, the veteran doesn't allow himself to get too comfortable.
"As soon as you feel like you've made it, that's when you're out," McQuaide said. "Just kind of pay rent every single day at my locker and just try to be the best out there doing it."
Bates admitted that the special teamers are different.
"Inside these lines you have to turn a switch, have a different mentality," Bates said. "You can't bring a basketball game back on the football field. It won't work."
NOTES: DE Chris Long (stiff back) practiced for the first time after being held out the first three days. . CB Trovon Reed was signed and WR Devon Wylie was cut . Dave Peacock, the head of the St. Louis Stadium Taskforce, attended the open practice with his two sons.