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Preview: Cardinals Special Teams

The Cardinals had one of the NFL's strongest special-teams units last season despite kicking struggles.

The Arizona Cardinals had several holes on special teams last season. 

Kicking field goals became a nightmare towards the back half of the year, and Arizona didn't get much going in the return game. 

That said, the Cardinals landed 10th on si.com analyst Rick Gosselin's special-teams rankings for 2020 on the backs of its coverage units. 

The Cardinals finished fifth in opposing yards per kickoff return and first in opposing starting field position. 

Special teams coordinator Jeff Rodgers' unit also took the ball away three times, which tied for most in the league.

"(Rodgers) has a great command of what he's trying to get accomplished," Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury said ahead of Week 1. 

"He has such a belief in them and those guys believe in him and they play that way. I just think he's developed such a good culture. He's had some of those stalwarts, those names that are great leaders for him, and they go out there, play their tails off on Sunday and take a lot of pride in that unit. So those meetings are fun to be a part of."

This offseason, the Cardinals sought to improve the areas needed. 

They first signed veteran kicker Matt Prater to replace Zane Gonzalez and Mike Nugent. 

They then drafted wide receiver Rondale Moore in the second round, someone who returned kicks at Purdue and has the speed, agility and ball skills to profile as an effective returner in the NFL. 

Moore and second-year running back Eno Benjamin, who did not return kickoffs last year but looked solid in the preseason, share the starting duty on the depth chart. 

"Whatever happens, I'll be ready," Moore said.

Coverage

Arizona retained most of its key coverage players. 

Linebackers Dennis Gardeck and Zeke Turner were tendered contracts after having big seasons last year.

Turner received All-Pro votes after he blocked two punts in 2020, one in the season opener and then another in Week 15. 

Gardeck, Arizona's special-teams captain, tore his ACL in Week 15, so his workload in the first few weeks will be handled delicately. A hand injury he sustained in practice Thursday will hold him out for at least Week 1 and possibly longer. 

Safety Charles Washington, inside linebacker Tanner Vallejo, safety Deionte Thompson, safety Chris Banjo (practice squad), edge rusher Kylie Fitts (practice squad), tight end Darrell Daniels and running back Jonathan Ward all had prominent special-teams roles and are also back with the Cardinals.

The trick is replacing wide receiver Trent Sherfield at one of thgunner, whom the Cardinals did not tender a contract. He signed with the 49ers this offseason, and Arizona's punt coverage struggled in the one game he missed last year at New England. 

Punts

Wide receiver Christian Kirk is set to return punts after he got more experience with it last year. He returned punts in each of his first three seasons.

His best game in 2020 on special teams was against the New York Giants in Week 14 when he returned six punts for 77 yards. He had struggles early in the year, but continued showing growth leading into the offseason. 

The trick will be avoiding losses, as Kirk would sometimes cut backwards to try and find holes but would get caught. Moore is listed behind Kirk, so it wouldn't be a surprise to see him also get an opportunity.

Andy Lee is back at punter for his 18th NFL season. 

His net average for yards per punt hit a decade-low, but he finished 16th in the NFL in punts downed inside the 20. 

What Lee did well was force fair catches. Arizona finished tied for ninth in the NFL in punts resulting in a fair catch. 

He also has soft touch down the field with his arm:

Kicking

Prater's recent history kicking in State Farm Stadium is strong. 

As a member of the Lions last year, he made four field goals, three in the second half, to beat Arizona in Week 3. He drilled a 39-yarder at the end of regulation for the walk-off win. 

Prater made a strong first impression in the Cardinals preseason opener when he made all four of his field-goal tries, including another game-winner.

Kingsbury has praised his veteran leadership. The 37-year-old is not a captain this year, but he has been in years past. 

He has 203 games of NFL experience and has made 386 field goals. 

However, he struggled a bit last season, as his field-goal percentage dropped below 80% for the first time since 2011. 

He was perfect from 39 yards and in, but had some difficulty with longer kicks. He made just 10 of 17 attempts from 40 yards and beyond.

Prater has been great from distance throughout his career, so the Cardinals are betting on him to bounce back. 

Depth chart 

Special Teams

PositionStarter

Kicker

Matt Prater

Punter

Andy Lee

Long Snapper

Aaron Brewer

Holder

Andy Lee

Kickoff Retuner

Rondale Moore/Eno Benjamin

Punt Returner

Christian Kirk