Cardinals special teams expected to see big improvement in 2017
New kicker. New punter. New holder. New kick and punt returner.
The Arizona Cardinals special teams underwent a major renovation since the end of last season, and for good reason: The unit was directly responsible for three losses with an argument to be made for as many as two more in 2016.
Gone is kicker Chandler Catanzaro, replaced by Phil Dawson; punters Drew Butler, Ryan Quigley and Matt Wile were swapped out for Andy Lee, who will also do the holding; and the combination of Andre Ellington, Brittan Golden and J.J. Nelson plus Patrick Peterson, at times, in the return game have all stepped aside for one individual, Kerwynn Williams.
The only familiar face is long snapper Aaron Brewer, though he joined the Cardinals after Week 3 last season.
In other words, there are no players returning in 2017 in the role they had at the start of 2016.
“It’s the first time I’ve ever gone to training camp in 34, 35 years, whatever the heck it’s been, where I had nobody that had ever been to training camp with me. So I was looking at four new faces, from a training camp standpoint,” special teams coordinator Amos Jones. “Obviously, Matt and Brewer had been with us to finish the season but from a training camp standpoint, just the regiment of getting them acclimated to how we do things, everything was new in that respect.”
All the changes, according to Jones, who is entering his fifth season with the Cardinals, didn’t make things any harder, but he did admit this week to expect a bit of a learning curve, especially with the coverage units, as guys learn to play with one another.
There’s more speed with the coverage teams, Jones added. Plus, at least heading into Week 1, they are healthy. Tyvon Branch, Jaron Brown and Ifeanyi Momah, among a handful of others, missed a good chunk of last season on injured reserve which hurt the core of the special teams unit.
The Cardinals 2017 draft class, including first- and second-round picks Haason Reddick and Budda Baker, should also help bolster special teams.
Of course, the most important aspect of special teams is the snap, the hold and the kick.
“I feel pretty good about that being handled,” Jones said.
Last season, the Cardinals went young in those areas, and suffered for it.
This season, they’ve turned to a 42-year-old and 35-year-old to perform the kicking duties.
“Two veteran guys that have been through a lot of big games and I’m excited they’re both on our team,” head coach Bruce Arians said, referring to Dawson and Lee.
In 18 seasons, Dawson has made 84.5 percent of his field goals attempts and 98 percent of his extra point tries. The Cardinals ranked 31st and 23rd in the league in those two areas, respectively, in 2016.
And don’t bother questioning Dawson’s leg strength. Twice he hit 50-plus yard field goals in the preseason, including a long of 54 in Atlanta.
“Phil’s (good) from 60 in and he always has been. He’s never lost any distance,” Arians said, noting Dawson nailed a 65-yard field goal in training camp. “He can still kickoff; the 49ers just decided to pooch kick all the time because he’s so damn good at that, too. But the yard line just moves back. We get to the 40 it’s probably going to be a field goal.”
Meanwhile, Lee is still going strong as he enters his 14th season.
A three-time pro bowler and four-time all-pro, Lee ranks ninth in NFL history in punt average, 12th in net average and tied for eighth in punts inside the 20-yard line. The Cardinals had the worst average and net average in the league in 2016.
“He can flip the field,” said Dawson, a teammate of Lee’s for two seasons in San Francisco. “Takes a little pressure off your offense. Sometimes when an offense takes possession backed up they feel like they have to get a couple of first downs in order to get the ball out of there. Andy doesn’t need a whole lot of room. He can put it out there, he can use all the directions. He has different kinds of punts in his bag of tricks, so with the gunners we’re going to have and some of the guys we’re going to have covering, I think we can do some pretty fun things.”
A year ago, Lee had his season cut short because of a hamstring injury.
“I feel good. I feel strong,” he said. “I definitely do a little bit more to try to take care of my leg than I used to just to make sure I’m warmed up, make sure I’m ready to go and not rushing things. My preparation is a little better but other than that, I feel good.”
With the additions of Dawson and Lee, specifically, special teams should be more consistent than last season, according to Arians. And considering the number of close games the Cardinals play—they went 3-5-1 in one possession games in 2016—special teams will once again be leaned on heavily.
“I’m excited with the guys we got,” Dawson said. “(Monday) was the first day we were all in the room together and you kind of look around and see, ‘alright, I can see him doing this and him doing that.’ I think with the guys we have in the room we can do some things. (But) it’s up to us to write the story. We can talk a lot about it but it’s not until we get out there and we have 16 chances to do it so this week it’s, let’s lock in on what we got to do at Detroit and go do it.”