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Free agency could help Cardinals fix special-teams issues

TEMPE, Ariz. -- When the Arizona Cardinals evaluate players to make up the bottom of their roster, there’s one requirement.

The player must be able to play special teams.

That’s not saying they will, but if they’re another option for the Cardinals to use them on the kickoff, kick return, punt, punt return, extra point or field goal units, that could be the difference between them getting signed or not.

And after a season of special-teams mishaps that contributed to the Cardinals losing five games, fixing special teams will be a priority this offseason.

“It wasn’t good enough,” general manager Steve Keim said. “I don’t think there’s any secret to that.

“It was not good enough. It was unacceptable. There’s no doubt about that has to change, particularly for us to have any type of success next year, whether it’s whoever our kicker is, our punter, our long snapper.”

Some of that change will come from injured players returning to their roles on special teams. By the end of the season, special-teams aces such as Jaron Brown, Alani Fua and Gabe Martin were all on injured reserve, as were Ifeanyi Momah, Troy Niklas and Tyvon Branch, all of whom had roles on special teams.

The Cardinals took one step toward solidifying their special-teams issues by re-signing Jeremy Ross, who impressed on special teams during the last two games of the season. But with 16 unrestricted free agents scheduled to hit the open market when free agency begins at 4 p.m. ET Thursday, the Cardinals could lose reliable special-teams players such as Stepfan Taylor, Earl Watford, Alex Okafor and Kevin Minter.

Then there’s the situation at kicker.

Chandler Catanzaro, whose missed field goals or extra points contributed to at least three losses last season, is a restricted free agent, and if he isn’t tendered by 4 p.m. ET Thursday, he can become a free agent. Without any definitive word that Catanzaro will be re-signed, it’s possible the Cardinals could enter next season with a new place-kicker, as well as a new punter and long snapper, as Keim alluded to.

“Those guys have to step up and answer the bell,” Keim said. “To take it a step deeper than that, it’s the cover team, it’s the core special-teams units. It’s not making excuses. We had quite a few injuries, particularly to guys who would’ve been core special-teamers.

“We all have to challenge [ourselves]. I can promise you, you’ll see a significant different in our special teams this year.”