Canadian Lirim Hajrullahu has a real shot to replace Greg “The Leg” Zuerlein as the Los Angeles Rams kicker.
In a unique way, Hajrullahu and Zuerlein are connected. The Dallas Cowboys signed the 32-year-old, who was named an All-Pro following the 2017 NFL season, on March 30. As Zuerlein was making his free agent decision, the Rams and Cowboys were preparing alternate options behind the scenes, Hajrullahu was high on each team’s list.
That was because Hajrullahu performed well at coach Gary Zauner’s 2020 free agent combine from March 8-10. Both the Rams and Cowboys were at the showcase, only one of those teams spoke with the Western University product after watching him kick live in Phoenix, Arizona. Other NFL franchises were there, but it seemed LA and Dallas displayed their interest in different ways.
“The special teams coach [John Bonamego] and the assistant special teams coach [Tory Woodbury] were at that camp. I never talked to the Rams that day, usually the coaches or scouts will come up to you after the workout,” Hajrullahu said.
“The Cowboys pro scout there thought really highly of my abilities and knew coach Zauner really well, Henry Sroka. We had a really good chat after the camp, a relationship was built.”
When Zuerlein signed his deal with Dallas, which was three years long and worth up to $7.5 million, it took the Cowboys out of the equation for Hajrullahu. Zuerlein netted $1 million immediately and the contract included a guarantee of $2.25 million overall. Veteran Kai Forbath is the other kicker on the Cowboys’ roster who will provide competition, but the guaranteed money for Zuerlein makes him the favourite in Big D.
LA had spoken with Hajrullahu’s agent throughout the process and moved quickly following Zuerlein’s departure. Meanwhile, Hajrullahu was kicking at high school fields in Oakville to keep his leg fresh and powerful while staying isolated from others during the coronavirus pandemic.
“They were adaptive to the situation with COVID-19, it happened pretty quick. We were talking with them and five other teams. Even after I signed there were a couple teams that called and were surprised I had signed so quickly,” Hajrullahu said.
“Overall LA was the best scenario for myself because it’s an open competition. You don’t have a veteran guy that’s guaranteed a couple million already. It’s open and it’s up to me now.”
The three-year agreement with the Rams came exactly 21 years to the day the Hajrullahu’s were evicted from their home in the Republic of Kosovo. His family fled the region when he was a nine-year-old as Serbian forces attacked their town. More than one million ethnic Albanians were displaced and 11,000 were killed in a war that lasted 18 months in the late 1990s.
“We weren’t sure if we were going to be alive tomorrow. To be able to come to Canada, the freedom this country has given us, the opportunities this country has given us, both my family and my wife’s family, we’re so grateful,” Hajrullahu said.
“To go play a sport in the NFL in LA, honestly for my parents and my whole family, we can’t fathom it. Timing is everything. Right timing, right team. You just have to take the opportunity and run with it.”
2020 seventh round draft pick Sam Sloman and undrafted Austin MacGinnis are competing with Hajrullahu for the Rams kicker job. The 30-year-old Hajrullahu has the most pro experience of the trio, he kicked in the Canadian Football League for six years and won a Grey Cup championship in 2017 with the Toronto Argonauts.
“I’m still young in kicker years, if you look at Adam Vinatieri he’s 45. Most kickers early 30s are your prime,” Hajrullahu said.
“Now the hard work begins. I need to dig down deeper, be hungrier, be more disciplined and be prepared to compete at the highest level.”
Hajrullahu has arrived in Los Angeles set for Rams training camp and the biggest kicks of his life.