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Cardinals pre-camp preview: Zane Gonzalez a special teams question

Seattle Seahawks' Shaquill Griffin (26) watches the path of Arizona Cardinals' Zane Gonzalez's (5) field goal as Cardinals holder Andy Lee (2) looks on during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 30, 2018, in Seattle. (AP Photo/John Froschauer)

The Arizona Cardinals report to duty on July 24 and open 2019 training camp with their first practice the following day. To preview the storylines heading into head coach Kliff Kingsbury’s first year on the job, let’s take a look at the roster by position groups.

Special teams has continuity with last season, a year in which little went wrong from a team standpoint. But the biggest question-mark on the unit is at kicker, where Zane Gonzalez must prove he’s consistent enough to solidify himself as an NFL leg.


Projected starters

K: Zane Gonzalez

P: Andy Lee

LS: Aaron Brewer

Returns: Christian Kirk (punt), T.J. Logan (kickoff)

Depth

P: Ryan Winslow

Returns: Damiere Byrd (punt/kickoff), Pharoh Cooper (punt), Patrick Peterson (punt), Brandon Williams (kickoff)

Biggest storyline

Special teams coordinator Jeff Rodgers is one of a few holdovers from former Cardinals head coach Steve Wilks’ staff, and it’s pretty easy to see why.

Last year, amid many ugly football things, nobody noticed that the special teams units looked pretty darn good with the exception of turnover at kicker. Phil Dawson, then 43 years old, went 5-for-8 in 10 games before he ended the year on the injured reserve with a hip issue.

His replacement, Arizona State-bred Zane Gonzalez, fared a bit better, going 7-of-9 in five games with Arizona.

Coming off an injury that led to the Cleveland Browns cutting him midseason, he hit a 44-yarder with 1:41 left in the Green Bay snow to lead Arizona past the Packers in his first game with the Cardinals. Then, Gonzalez drilled three field goals, including 50- and a 55-yard attempts, in the season finale at Seattle.

Gonzalez, 24, appears to have the confidence of the Arizona staff heading into 2019. He’s just 24-for-34 (71%) in his first two NFL seasons and has missed four of 37 extra points. His leg strength is proven, but consistency will be key if he’s going to build a long NFL career.

X-factor

(Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

An added benefit of the Cardinals searching far and wide for receivers that fit a spread offense is the options it’s handing to Rodgers when it comes to the return game.

It’s too early to know which players are favorites, but for the time being it’s safe to say receiver Christian Kirk and third-string running back T.J. Logan could be respective favorites at punt and kickoff return.

But after that, there are intriguing options. Pharoh Cooper, a 2017 special teams Pro Bowler, must either blow the Cardinals away with his returns or improve as a receiver just to make the roster. He’s coming off a season stained by an ankle injury that led to the Los Angeles Rams releasing him last December.

Backup corner Brandon Williams got some action as a kick return man for a brief period last year, and starting cornerback Patrick Peterson is an option once he returns from a six-game PED suspension.

Maybe lost in all this is Damiere Byrd, who has experience at both return spots and just might fight his way onto the roster as a lightening-fast receiver anyway.

Under the radar

— Give punter Andy Lee credit for quietly helping Arizona out last season. The Cardinals led the NFL by averaging 48.3 yards per punt and were fourth with a 44.1 net average. Thirty-two of the 94 punts (34%) were inside the opponent 20-yard line. This, despite Arizona leading the NFL with 94 punts required.

— Long snapper Aaron Brewer, coming off a clean and healthy 2018!

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