ARIZONA CARDINALS

Then and now: Return jobs up for grabs on Cardinals special teams

Jul 4, 2020, 7:14 AM | Updated: 4:35 pm
Arizona Cardinals kicker Zane Gonzalez (5) kicks a field goal as punter Andy Lee (4) holds against ...

Arizona Cardinals kicker Zane Gonzalez (5) kicks a field goal as punter Andy Lee (4) holds against the Atlanta Falcons during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Oct. 13, 2019, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

The Arizona Cardinals believe they’ve plugged holes and built depth. On paper they look improved, though they’ve not yet hit the practice field due to the coronavirus.

They speak about flashes of offensive brilliance last year, the growth of quarterback Kyler Murray and a thinly manned defense’s improvements to end 2019 as reasons to be optimistic about 2020.

But the biggest reason for optimism is the upgraded roster. How different does this 2020 roster really look compared to the one that began the first training camp under head coach Kliff Kingsbury?

By position, here’s a then-and-now comparison of the roster last offseason next to the current 2020 Cardinals team based on our 2019 July preview series leading into 2019 training camp.


Then

2019 projected starters

Kicker: Zane Gonzalez

Punter: Andy Lee

Long snapper: 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: Cardinal put faith in Zane Gonzalez without much NFL experience

X-factor: Can Pharoh Cooper, Damiere Byrd earn roster spots by taking return duties?


Now

Projected starters

Kicker: Zane Gonzalez

Punter: Andy Lee

Long snapper: Aaron Brewer

Returns: Christian Kirk (punt), Andy Isabella (kick)

Depth

Punter: Ryan Winslow

Returns: ???


Biggest storyline

Andy Isabella (AP Photo/Matt York)

It’s hard to complain much about kicker Zane Gonzalez, punter Andy Lee and long snapper Aaron Brewer. Their 2019 seasons were respectively pretty good, so barring some significant dip in play, let’s move on to the biggest question mark.

Who takes the place of Pharoh Cooper?

A year ago, he wasn’t under much consideration to be a punt return man simply because it didn’t look like he’d make the roster as a receiver. And it’s true — he didn’t!

But when Christian Kirk got hurt early on and Cooper re-signed with Arizona after a brief stint with the Cincinnati Bengals, the Cardinals found that he wasn’t just an improving wideout but still had some of the juice that he had as a special teams Pro Bowler in 2017. He returned 17 punts (7.6 yards per return) and 25 kickoffs (22.4 yards per return).

Now, Cooper is with the Carolina Panthers, and it’s not known who will be on the return teams on either kicks or punts. Speed receiver Damiere Byrd, who took some kick return duties, is also on a new team.

Kirk said this offseason he’s open to taking punt return reps if asked, while fellow receiver Andy Isabella appears most equipped to handle kickoffs considering his speed.

Options after that aren’t obvious. Backup running backs Chase Edmonds (three returns in 2018) and Eno Benjamin (six returns as a freshman at Arizona State) could possibly enter the mix.

X-factor

Zane Gonzalez (Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images)

Let’s take a moment to appreciate Gonzalez’s season, as well as special teams coordinator and assistant head coach Jeff Rodgers, who put his faith in the kicker heading into last year.

Gonzalez proved Arizona smart, knocking in 31 of 35 field goals in 2019 with splits of 12-of-12 (1-29 yards), 12-of-13 (30-39 yards), 5-of-8 (40-49 yards) and 2-for-2 (50+ yards).

His steadiness earned him the second-round qualifying offer as he entered free agency, and he’ll make $3.2 million in 2020.

Can Gonzalez take it to another gear with a full year of confidence built up and more trust from his head coach?

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