Matt Kartozian/USA Today Sports

Position capsule: Special teams

The Arizona Cardinals suffered through an abysmal 2016 season on special teams, so the team should have nowhere to go but up in 2017.

Position capsule: Specialists

Returners: Aaron Brewer (LS), Matt Wile (P)

Free Agents: Chandler Catanzaro (K--restricted)

Contracts: Brewer: 2017-$775,000, Wile: 2017-$540,000

Current roster number: 2

Ideal roster number: 3

2016 performance: It's difficult to find an NFL team that had a worse collective season on special teams in 2016 than the Arizona Cardinals did. In fact, it might be impossible to find such a team.

The Cardinals' special teams units were brutal throughout the 2016 season, and from start to finish, Arizona never enjoyed any form of consistency. The team began the season with Drew Butler as its punter, before an injury to Butler forced the team to hit the free agent market to sign Ryan Quigley. By the time Butler returned, the Cardinals had the worst punting average and net punting average in the league, and Quigley actually represented a slight improvement over Butler. 

Ultimately, Arizona wound up releasing both punters and signed free agent Matt Wile, who enters the offseason as the current favorite to win the starting job in 2017. Though Wile averaged just over 43 yards per punt with Arizona, his net average was still under 38 yards per punt and he also had a punt blocked in the final game of the regular season. Wile has a bigger leg than either Butler or Quigley, but he hasn't yet demonstrated the consistency the Cardinals will need to make an overall improvement in 2017.

As for the team's kicking game, Chandler Catanzaro suffered through his worst season as a professional, connecting on just 21-of-28 field goal attempts and missing four extra points. The Cardinals finished 31st in the league in team field goal percentage, ahead of only Tampa Bay. Still, not all of Catanzaro's misses were squarely on his shoulders, as poor snaps and inconsistent holds often disrupted the Clemson product's timing.

Aaron Brewer brought more stability to the long-snapper position, but the team attempted to replace retired snapper Mike Leach with rookie Kameron Canaday at the start of the year, and that strategy never panned out. The team wound up turning to Brewer a few weeks into the season, and that helped Catanzaro find a better rhythm.

Ultimately, though, the Cardinals' special teams units were awful in 2016 and likely cost the team a shot at the playoffs. Had the special teams units not accounted for simple mistakes at the beginning of the year, Arizona's record may have looked quite different heading into the stretch run. 

2017 readiness: It's impossible to say whether the Cardinals are truly committed to making improvements in 2017, especially because it's often difficult to make significant strides on special teams on a year-to-year basis. Head coach Bruce Arians is committed to having special teams coach Amos Jones return in 2017, so at the very least, we know the instruction the Cardinals' players are receiving won't change.

The Cardinals may elect to make a move at placekicker, where Catanzaro is a restricted free agent, but they may also elect to bring Catanzaro back because Arians has outwardly professed his confidence in Catanzaro's abilities and his resume prior to this season was relatively impressive. If Catanzaro returns with his confidence intact and the Cardinals improve their stability at long snapper and holder, then we would expect Catanzaro's numbers to climb back up.

The biggest question the Cardinals will face is on their punt unit, where Butler consistently ranked among the league's worst and his replacements in 2016 didn't fare much better. At the very least, we know the Cardinals will practically be starting with a clean slate here, and after finishing dead last in net punting, that's all they can really ask for.

The long haul: With how many special teams issues the Cardinals must take care of in the short-term, the team has very little room to make plans for the long haul. So often in the NFL, kickers, punters and long snappers eschew free agency and stick with teams as long as they remain at the top of their game, so the likelihood of landing a free agent difference-maker isn't strong for Arizona.

The Cardinals are one of the handful of teams in the NFL that might actually benefit from drafting a punter in the middle-to-late rounds to ensure the team has its pick of the very best option becoming available in 2017. Whether this concept meshes with Arians' beliefs about special teams remains uncertain, but it's one manner in which the Cardinals can attempt to fix their issues at the position.

In the meantime, it's likely Arizona gives Catanzaro at least one more shot to make things work as the placekicker, because his first two full seasons in the NFL were full of promise. If Catanzaro can't return to form early in 2017, though, the franchise needs to consider adding a kicker at the back end of the draft in 2018.

Draft need: Moderate priority

Position overview: Yes, the Cardinals actually have a demonstrated need to add a specialist through the NFL Draft. Perhaps three or four teams have this need each season, but with the way Arizona has managed its punting unit in recent seasons, it appears as though adding a punter late in the NFL Draft could be the franchise's best option to solidify its current situation.

While the Cardinals will probably wind up giving the pairing of Catanzaro and Brewer another shot on extra point and field goal attempts, unless the team believes Wile is a rock-solid solution at punter, then Arizona must take steps to improve at the position next season.  


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