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Cardinals Positional Breakdown: Special Teams

Reviewing the Arizona Cardinals 2020 season position-by-position. Leading off: special teams.

With a capable kicking game, the Arizona Cardinals could have had some of the strongest special teams play in the league in 2020. But, while the unit thrived in certain respects, they struggled mightily in others, with kicking being perhaps the most glaring issue.

Strengths

Their coverage teams allowed the sixth-fewest kick return yards and 20-yard returns. 

After an uncharacteristically poor game in Week 12 against the New England Patriots, when not having gunner Trent Sherfield (reserve/COVID-19) along with Tanner Vallejo leaving after only six snaps evidently hurt, the Cardinals forced fumbles on returns in back-to-back games. Their special teams DVOA was at its best in Weeks 14 and 16, as this element was one of the team's strongest late in the season on any side of the ball.

They did not allow any touchdown returns, plus linebacker Ezekiel Turner blocked two punts. Arizona was one of three teams this year with multiple punt blocks. 

Weaknesses

Kicker Zane Gonzalez was 16-for-22 on field-goal attempts, with most of the misses from 40-49 yards. He hit just 8-for-13 from that distance, which tied Los Angeles Chargers Michael Badgley and Tennessee Titans Stephen Gostkowski for the most misses within that range. But, both Badgley and Gostkowski played in at least 15 games while Gonzalez was in just 12, as a back injury held him out for the final quarter of the regular season.  

Veteran Mike Nugent came off the practice squad to relieve Gonzalez, and he nailed 7 of 8 field-goal tries, with the one miss being blocked. However, he only attempted two beyond 40 yards, though. 

Late in games is when Gonzalez cost the Cardinals several times. He missed a game-tying 49-yard field goal with under two minutes left against the Miami Dolphins in Week 9, a three-point loss for Arizona. 

He missed a go-ahead 45-yard kick with under two minutes remaining against New England, another three-point loss. 

He also missed an overtime 44-yard field goal against the Seattle Seahawks in Week 7, which would have won the game. Arizona got the ball back, though, and he redeemed himself from 48 yards for the victory.

The Cardinals also had a bottom-11 DVOA in both kickoff and punt returning, per Football Outsiders. 

Wide receiver Christian Kirk was the main punt returner, and he averaged six yards per attempt. At times, he would try to flip the field by going backwards, which seldom worked.

Running back Chase Edmonds was the primary kickoff returner, and he was tied for ninth in average return yards out of 16 players in the league with at least 18 tries (23.2). His best run was a 54-yard return in Week 13, which led to a touchdown.

Key facts and figures

○ The Cardinals had the league's eighth-worst field-goal percentage as a team at 76.7. Heading into Week 14, they were fifth lowest at 72.7 percent. 

○ Punter Andy Lee was 26th in the league in average punt yards with 44.8, his lowest mark since 2006. He had 28 punts pinned inside the 20 (tied for 12th). Sometimes overlooked in comparison to Gonzalez's gaffes were how a few short punts by Lee led to points for the opposition.

○ The kickoff return coverage team allowed the fifth-fewest yards per return with 19.46.  

○ Overall, Arizona's special teams had the 18th-best season in the league per Football Outsiders metric weighted DVOA.

Standouts

- Ezekiel Turner: Turner came just a few votes shy of being an All-Pro second-team member this season. 

Not only did he have the two blocked kicks, but he was a stalwart on coverage teams, not missing a game and making 12 total tackles. He also showed his receiver skills, as in Week 15 against the Philadelphia Eagles, when he caught Lee's pass on a fake punt down the seam to pick up a first down.

Arizona Cardinals linebacker Ezekiel Turner (47) celebrates after catching a pass on a fake punt play in the second half against the Philadelphia Eagles at State Farm Stadium.

- Dennis Gardeck: The special teams captain also earned votes for an All-Pro selection. 

He received the opportunity to rush the passer in certain defensive packages, and he provided a spark as a tenacious rusher. He finished second on the team with seven sacks. On special teams, he was consistent in coverage and recovered Turner's first block in Week 1. 

Key quotes

Head coach Kliff Kingsbury: "As far as the kicker, we've said along we like Zane, have a lot of faith in Zane and we're still evaluating all things moving forward."

Turner, following his blocked punt in Week 15: "Helping the team win, just putting the offense in that position, be able to flip the field like that. In close games like this, field positioning is huge."

Quarterback Kyler Murray on Gonzalez's struggles: "It's one of those positions where you don't get many opportunities. I'm sure it's very mental. I've never been a kicker . . . But no, I'm not down . . . I know how tough it is."

Upcoming key free agents

• K Zane Gonzalez (UFA)

• K Mike Nugent (UFA)

• LB Dennis Gardeck (RFA)

• LB Ezekiel Turner (RFA)

• LB Kylie Fitts (RFA)

• P Andy Lee (UFA)

• S Charles Washington (UFA)

• WR Trent Sherfield (RFA) 

Arizona Cardinals kicker Zane Gonzalez (5) kicks a field goal during the second half against the Miami Dolphins at State Farm Stadium.

Among a slew of decisions the Cardinals have in store this offseason, their special teams corps is almost all up for new contracts. 

Whether the Cardinals bring back Gonzalez is "being evaluated," Nugent will be 39 in March and current reserve/future contract kicker Brett Maher had a dismal 67 percent field-goal percentage in 2019. Maybe the Cardinals could use one of their six picks on a new leg.

Deciding which special teams playmakers to bring back will keep the Cardinals even more busy, and deciding if they need to bring in outside help in the return game. It seems that Gardeck, Turner and Sherfield have especially established themselves as keystones of the coverage units, and could be priorities to keep around. Gardeck underwent surgery to repair a torn ACL, which could make him unavailable at the beginning of the season.

Grades

Howard Balzer: C-plus

Mason Kern: B

Alex Weiner: B-minus