As an undrafted free agent in 2013, linebacker Daren Bates was looking for a way to earn a job with the St. Louis Rams.
He found that opportunity as a special teams demon, using his speed and aggression to force his way onto the roster. Bates, now in his third NFL season, even predicted he was going to win a spot the night before the first day of special teams practice on his Twitter account.
“I said I was going to try to come out here and get me a job,” Bates said Monday after the Rams’ broke out shoulder pads for the first day of special teams practice. “When I put it out there, I felt that I had to go out there and do it.”
Bates used his first practice in shoulder pads two years ago to begin doing the type of damage that fired up some teammates and caught the attention of the coaching staff.
What kind of impact did Bates make? On Sunday, Rams coaches showed film of Bates from that practice to the team.
“Up until that day we had never had pads on in OTAs (organized team activities) or in training camp to that point, so you think this guy might have a little something to him,” said John Fassel, the Rams’ special teams coordinator. “He may be scrappy, he may be tough, but you don’t know until you can go out there and bang with the pads on.
“Obviously that day kind of woke everybody up as far as the coaches (were concerned) and we said let’s keep an eye and see what happens in the games. Then he did it in the games.”
The 5-foot-11, 225-pounds Bates has been proving people wrong since his days at Olive Branch (Miss.) High School. He had only one real scholarship offer, from Arkansas State, until Auburn coaches who came to watch another Olive Branch player during a basketball game liked Bates as well and decided to make an offer.
He led Auburn with 94 tackles as a senior in 2012 and has played in 29 games with the Rams, primarily on special teams.
On Monday, Bates was encouraging younger players to bring everything they could on the field. The final 20 minutes of practice featured a “gunner” drill, a one-on-one contest in open space with one player trying to reach a target and the other doing everything he can to keep him from getting there.
Before the drill began, the camp DJ played the “Let’s Get Ready to Rumble” theme, quickly followed by the George Thorogood guitar anthem “Bad to the Bone.” Players loved it and got fired up..
“When it comes inside these line, you have to turn a switch and have a different mentality,” Bates said. “You can’t bring the basketball game out here on the football field. It won’t work.”
Bates’ toughness and execution is an inspiration to everyone on the special teams units, including All-Pro punter Johnny Hekker.
“He just does an amazing job using his body and his leverage and just dominating people on the special teams arena,” Hekker said. “Every play he’s out there either locking somebody down or getting past someone or influencing tackles or making the tackle himself
“That’s the kind of guy you want on special teams. When you see a guy dominating like that so often, then it gives everybody else energy and the want-to to dominant as well.”
Bates trained with former U.S. Olympian sprinter Michael Johnson in the Dallas area during the offseason.
“They worked on my vertical, my speed, everything,” Bates said. “Hopefully y’all can see a little vertical jump here soon.”
Johnson, who won four gold medals, was known for some flashy gold track spikes he wore during the Olympics.
“He doesn’t wear the fancy shoes,” Bates said, “but he drives fancy cars though.”
Bates knows he still has to work hard to keep a spot on the 53-man roster, but his hard work had made him a core part of one of the NFL’s most improved special teams units. He racked up 10 special teams tackles a year ago.
“You always want to play your position,” Bates said, “so I do want to get out there and make some tackles on defense, get some interceptions, make some big plays for the defense. But I know where my home is and special teams is where it’s at.
“That’s where I can make plays. I can go out and be myself and get to show my athleticism, just get to play free.”
Bates tries to encourage players who rarely fell below first team on their collegiate depth charts that special teams might be their only hope of making an NFL roster.
“I don’t try to tell them ‘I did this,’ everybody’s different,”’ Bates said. “Do what you can do, use your strengths when you’re out there because that’s going to keep you alive, keep you going through the drills. If you don’t think too much and play ball, you’re be all right.”
Rams Camp Notes
It was strictly a special teams workout Monday at training camp as the players enjoyed being able to hit on the first day with shoulder pads after three days without them.
“That’s what today was about, to see who could run, scrap, get off the ground when they get knocked down,” Fassel said. “We didn’t do any scheme work, it was all running around and trying to keep everybody on two feet by the end of the day, which I think we did.”
One player singled out for praise recently is safety Maurice Alexander, a fourth round pick in 2014 who played primarily on special teams last season.
“You know he is playing really fast right now and that implies that he knows what to do,” Rams coach Jeff Fisher said. “I mean he’s sure He’s decisive. He makes good decisions. He is reacting, he’s very athletic and he’s playing fast. He’s going to make a lot of plays for us.”