As the 2019 football season approaches we continue our Cardinals position-by-position series:
The Cardinals never announced it, officially, and they’ve never talked about it, publicly. Instead, Jeff Rodgers’ “promotion” just magically appeared under his bio one day on the team’s website earlier this year.
In addition to his duties as the team’s special teams coordinator, Rodgers was also given the title of “assistant head coach,” which likely included a nice little raise in pay as well as a lot more clout within the organization.
Considering what he was able to do last season during an otherwise awful year all around for the Cardinals, Rodgers’ elevation to assistant head coach seems fully warranted and completely deserving. After all, in just one season on the job, he took Arizona’s special teams from a unit that was ranked 30th to one that improved to No. 5 overall in 2018.
That’s no easy feat for a football club that won only three games. But that’s what happened, as the Cardinals finished among the top five in the league in multiple special-teams categories, including turnovers, blocked kicks, fewest points allowed, punting average, net punting average, opponent starting point average and fewest own kicks blocked.
Under Rodgers’ watch, punter Andy Lee led the league and set a franchise single-season record with a 48.6-yard punting average and rookie linebacker Zeke Turner, an undrafted free agent, led the NFL with 13 solo special teams tackles. Another undrafted free agent rookie, linebacker Dennis Gardeck, led all NFL first-year players with 388 total snaps on special teams.
There were the usual breakdowns and big plays allowed that are sure to accompany any team that goes 3-13, but the mistakes were far less glaring under Rodgers than they were for the previous five seasons under former special teams coordinator Amos Jones.
It’s an encouraging sign moving forward for the Cardinals, who return many of their core special teamers in 2019 and have added even more help during a very busy offseason. Rodgers was one of a handful of coaches from last year’s staff who was retained by Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury and General Manager Steve Keim and there’s no doubt special teams will play an instrumental role in how Arizona performs overall this season.
“He’s done a great job everywhere he’s been,” Kingsbury said. “He’s got a really calm demeanor, players respect him well, he’s a very well-respected coach in this league, very knowledgeable about all aspects of the NFL and he’ll be a huge help to me on a lot of fronts.”
One key element in 2019 that could be critical is the kicking game. The Cardinals finished with the fewest field goals made (12) in the league a year ago and it’s fair to wonder if retaining third-year pro Zane Gonzalez and having no competition for him entering training camp is the right way to go.
Gonzalez was amazing at Arizona State, setting the NCAA Division I record for career field goals made with 96 to earn unanimous All-American honors and the Lou Groza Award in 2016, but he’s only been so-so since turning pro. A seventh-round draft pick by the Browns in 2017, Gonzalez made 15 of 20 field-goal attempts as a rookie and missed only one of 26 extra-point tries.
But his 2018 season in Cleveland was a nightmare and it ended early. During a Week 1 tie against the rival Steelers, he had a game-winning 43-yard field goal blocked in overtime. A week later, during a 21-18 loss to the Saints, he missed two field goals and two extra points. He was released the following day.
The Cardinals picked him up last November and, following a season-ending hip injury to veteran Phil Dawson, Gonzalez appeared in five games, connecting on seven of nine field goals and five of six extra points. In March, Arizona brought in former Syracuse kicker Cole Murphy, but he was cut on May 2. Unless the team adds a kicker before or during camp, it looks as though the Cardinals will be happy to start the season with Gonzalez as their main man.
Lee remains the incumbent at punter, although on the same day the Cardinals released Murphy, they added another punter in Ryan Winslow, who most recently was with the San Diego Fleet of the now-defunct Alliance of American Football.
Lee is under contract through 2020 and doesn’t need the competition. He remains one of the league’s very best although he turns 37 in August, he’s still a Pro Bowl-level punter. Lee had 32 punts downed inside the opponent’s 20-yard line in 2018, which was tied for sixth-best in the NFL. His 42.6-yard net average was fifth.
Getting the ball to Lee and Gonzalez once again will be long snapper Aaron Brewer, who has been consistently solid since his arrival in 2016. He is signed through 2021.
The real competition on special teams will come in the return game, where multiple players will be vying for roles as punt and kickoff returners. Those expected to be in the mix include rookie wide receiver Andy Isabella, second-year wide receiver Christian Kirk, running back T.J. Logan and fourth-year wide receivers Pharoh Cooper and Damiere Byrd.
It isn’t known if cornerback Patrick Peterson will still be called on to occasionally handle punts.
Player on the hot seat
Zane Gonzalez: Whether the Cardinals decide to bring in an additional kicker or not for a look-see, Gonzalez will be under heavy pressure to excel in 2019. His only two misses for the Cardinals a year ago, field goal-wise, were attempts from beyond 50 yards. But he can’t afford any easy misses, especially if they start to come in bunches. The hunch is that Arizona has a short list of potentially available kickers to call upon should they notice any liabilities at all from Gonzalez once camp gets underway.
Potential breakout performer
Andy Isabella: Don’t be surprised if the diminutive rookie wide receiver gets reps at both punt- and kickoff-return duty. He’s got blazing speed, having run a 4.31 in the 40-yard dash at the scouting combine, and he’s shown incredible elusiveness during his college career at the University of Massachusetts. All Isabella needs is one step to gain an edge and then he can pull away from just about anyone. With the proper coaching and development, he could emerge as a Pro Bowl returner in short order. There will be plenty of competition for both return jobs, however, so it’s difficult to say exactly who could be this year’s rising star on special teams.
What he said
“That is a cool comparison. He’s probably going to be a Hall of Famer. That’s something that I would definitely love to be.”
—Andy Isabella on if he considers himself similar to Patriots wide receiver and kick returner Julian Edelman.
Have an opinion on the Arizona Cardinals? Reach McManaman at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @azbobbymac. Listen to him live every Tuesday afternoon between 2-5:30 on AM 1060/SB Nation Radio on Calling All Sports with Roc and Manuch and every Wednesday afternoon between 1-4 on Fox Sports 910-AM on The Freaks with Kenny and Crash.
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