ARIZONA CARDINALS

Cardinals free agency refresher: Kicker not the only special teams decision

Mar 14, 2021, 7:25 AM | Updated: 12:07 pm

Arizona Cardinals place kicker Zane Gonzalez (5) reacts with teammates after missing a field goal a...

Arizona Cardinals place kicker Zane Gonzalez (5) reacts with teammates after missing a field goal attempt near the end of the second half of an NFL football game against the New England Patriots, Sunday, Nov. 29, 2020, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

(AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

The National Football League’s new season officially begins next Wednesday.

League-wide, the Arizona Cardinals have the largest share of 2020 snaps taken by players who will enter free agency this offseason, according to OverTheCap.com. Forty-four percent of the team’s total snaps could be lost in free agency.

General manager Steve Keim will see what he can do to retain many of those players after an 8-8 season. But with spending limited due to a salary cap drop — plus teams expected to be shedding big contracts before free agency — there are many roster decisions to make on the fly.

This series, originally published in January, has been refreshed with any updates before free agency begins.

Players under contract

LS Aaron Brewer ($1,243,750)
K Brett Maher ($850,000) (Future contract)

Free agents

K Zane Gonzalez
K Mike Nugent
P Andy Lee
WR Trent Sherfield
ILB Zeke Turner (restricted)
ILB Tanner Vallejo
OLB Dennis Gardeck (restricted)
S Charles Washington
S Chris Banjo
OLB Kylie Fitts (restricted)
CB Kevin Peterson (restricted)

All salary data via Spotrac.com.

The good news

(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

The good news is that Aaron Brewer remains a long snapper who goes unnoticed. After that, there is potential for a relatively large amount of turnover.

The top seven players in terms of total special teams snaps taken in 2020 were all scheduled to become free agents: Zeke Turner, Dennis Gardeck, Tanner Vallejo, Charles Washington, Kylie Fitts, Trent Sherfield and Chris Banjo.

Vallejo has reportedly already agreed on a two-year deal worth $4.1 million.

Arizona’s special teams coverage unit under assistant head coach and special teams coordinator Jeff Rodgers remained one of the most impactful groups on the entire Cardinals team. The unit has an identity around Gardeck, the captain, plus young pros Turner, Sherfield and Vallejo.

From blocked kicks to forced turnovers, the special teamers swung games in Arizona’s favor.

The good news is that bringing most of those players back on reasonable deals is possible. Many of the key pieces are not only restricted free agents but important priorities to maintain depth on the offensive or defensive units.

Sherfield, per a Friday report, will not be tendered, perhaps a sign the Cardinals will try to retain its key players on deals less than the minimum tenders. They start at just above $2 million for a year.

The concerns

(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

The Cardinals tied Zane Gonzalez up last offseason by placing a second-round tender on him, and that effectively made him paid as a top-five kicker.

Gonzalez did not pay Arizona back with results. His powerful leg shined through at times, but inconsistency from the 40-49 range, in which he went 8-of-13 on the year, cost Arizona wins that would have sent it to the postseason.

The team placed Gonzalez on the injured reserve with a back injury in mid-December, and from there it was veteran Mike Nugent’s job.

Gonzalez was released before free agency, a procedural move because he was on IR.

General manager Steve Keim has in-house options, at least.

The 38-year-old Nugent went 7-of-8, missing a sub-40-yard kick and never taking one from 50 yards or more out. Over the last third of the season, Arizona also got a late-season practice squad look at Brett Maher, a 31-year-old with 29 games of NFL experience. Maybe they keep one or more of them, maybe they search for a fresh face in free agency.

Kicker isn’t the only thing up in the air. Punter Andy Lee, 38, is also a free agent after another solid season.

Throw in Gardeck suffering an ACL injury late in 2020 and the other free agents on special teams, and it’ll be a heavy workload not only to keep the special teams unit intact but to retain depth across the roster.

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