Cardinals 2021 lookahead: K Gonzalez not the only special teams decision
With the Arizona Cardinals missing out on the playoffs having finished 8-8 this year, we’re leaping ahead to — we hope — a relatively standard offseason.
In November, the NFL mapped out a 2021 offseason that officially begins March 17, when free agents can be signed. Then comes the NFL Draft scheduled for April 29 through May 1.
The Cardinals have big roster decisions to make across the board. By looking back at last year, we’re taking a look — by position group — at the personnel decisions ahead for Arizona general manager Steve Keim.
We’ve run down every offensive and defensive position group. Let’s wrap this series up by diving into special teams, where the Cardinals will be quite busy this offseason to keep their core together.
Players under contract
LS Aaron Brewer ($1,243,750)
K Brett Maher ($850,000) (futures contract)
K Zane Gonzalez
K Mike Nugent
P Andy Lee
WR Trent Sherfield (restricted)
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)
The good news
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 are all free agents: Zeke Turner, Dennis Gardeck, Tanner Vallejo, Charles Washington, Kylie Fitts, Trent Sherfield and Chris Banjo.
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.
However, there is a kicker controversy.
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.
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.