"Making the Cut"
As the Arizona Cardinals begin their quest to cut the team's roster size from 90 to 53 by the end of the preseason, we're taking a look at the key players at each position group and determining their odds of making the final cut.
Age: Butler: 27, Swanson: 21
Experience: Butler: 4th season, Swanson: Rookie
Contract status: Butler: 2016-$850,000, 2017-$1,550,000, Swanson: 2016-$450,000, 2017-$540,000, 2018-$630,000
2015 season quick review: After punting close to 80 times in each of his first two seasons with the Cardinals, Butler was called upon just 60 times last season as Arizona's offense enjoyed its best season in the last three years. Butler averaged 42.9 yards per punt which was an improvement over his 2014 average, but his net average fell to 35.4 yards per punt, the worst number of his three-year career. Butler's 42.9 yard average was among the worst in the NFL, as he ranked 29th in that category while the 35.4 net yards per punt represented the worst total in the NFL by more than a full yard. Part of Butler's struggles were due to Arizona's coverage unit, but as a punter, he shoulders the majority of the blame for those statistics and it's clear the Cardinals need to improve in this regard. The team signed an undrafted free agent in Swanson out of Fresno State who averaged 42.2 yards per punt with the Bulldogs a season ago.
Projected roster/depth chart status: The Cardinals' decision to bring Swanson in as an undrafted free agent is a sign the team is welcoming an open competition at punter this fall. After finishing toward the bottom of the league in every punting category, Arizona needed to at least open up the competition and management has done so by bringing in a Ray Guy award finalist from the college ranks. Though Swanson's 2015 numbers are somewhat similar to Butler's, receiving professional instruction from the Cardinals' coaching staff and improving on his leg strength could help him secure the starting job. There's only one spot for a punter on the Cardinals roster, and this competition has a similar feeling to the one Jay Feely and Chandler Catanzaro held two seasons ago when Catanzaro upset the incumbent.
Position group analysis: The Cardinals' punt unit was one of the worst special teams groupings in the country last year, so there's practically nowhere to go but up for this unit. Aside from addressing Butler's struggles by engaging him in a competition with Swanson, the Cardinals have also drafted defensive backs like Brandon Williams and Harlan Miller who are expected to contribute on special teams coverage units. The Cardinals are well aware of Justin Bethel's prowess as a gunner, and if Arizona can receive similar production from Williams or Miller in that regard, Arizona's coverage stands to improve as a whole.
Moving forward: If Butler beats out Swanson for the job, he'll once again need to prove himself to avoid the Cardinals bringing in another challenger next season. Even if Butler wins the job, punters and kickers have a volatile status on the roster, and a few bad weeks or a lack of consistency could force Arizona to look into finding a midseason replacement. There's no stability as a punter or kicker in the NFL unless that player enjoys constant success, so it's difficult to forecast the future of either player. If Swanson wins the job, the Cardinals would probably like to see him grow into a multi-year contributor for the organization who demonstrates improvement over the course of the season, because with the contract of an undrafted rookie free agent, Arizona wouldn't have to shell out top dollar for a player at a key position.
Key skill: Hang time
While there's no official measure of hang time in the NFL ranking punters on a game-to-game basis, the amount of room opposing returners had to work with last season against Arizona suggests there's plenty of room for improvement for Butler in this regard.
Butler ranked 29th in the NFL in yards per punt, but was far and away the worst NFL punter when it came to net average which factors in an opponent's return. As we mentioned, some of Arizona's struggles in this regard are due to the coverage unit, but when a team has a multi-year Pro Bowler like Bethel and other serviceable options like Williams and Miller in the fold, the Cardinals should not finish with the worst net punting average in the league.
If Butler can improve his hang time this year, it would significantly boost his chances of beating out Swanson for the job. If Swanson comes into camp with noticeably better hang time on punts than Butler, he could be the player Arizona ultimately decides to keep.
Punting in the NFL isn't just about leg strength and distance, which is where the term "out-kicked his coverage" comes from. If Butler or Swanson can work to decrease the total number of yards separating their punt average and the Cardinals' net average this season, Arizona would likely be satisfied with the results of the punting competition.
Overall value: Even though Butler's cap hit ranks just 20th among NFL punters, his production last season suggests he's not worth the $850,000 the Cardinals will pay him this season. The margin for error in terms of overpaying players, specifically specialists, is thin in the NFL, so if Arizona's management feels it's not receiving the proper value from Butler, it will look elsewhere. The first place the Cardinals could look is to Swanson, whose cap hit as an undrafted free agent is outside the top 32 cap hits among punters in the league. If Swanson does beat out Butler for the starting role, Arizona would receive a decent value from Swanson's contract even if the Cardinals don't make significant improvements statistically this season because his overall cost is so insignificant. Next season, Butler stands to make upward of $1.5 million, which would make him the 18th-highest paid punter in the league, so Arizona is hoping for a considerable improvement if it sticks with Butler and intends on maximizing the value of his contract.null