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Additions Should Be Special

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Keith Lewis, here trying to block a Rams' punt for the 49ers last season, should play a big role on the Cardinals' special teams this season.

Signing Keith Lewis as a free agent was about upgrading the Cardinals' depth at safety as much as it was improving special teams. Jason Wright was needed as a running back, even though he had created an impressive special teams' résumé in Cleveland.

This offseason has had very simple themes for the Cards – cornerback Bryant McFadden was the "big" outside name signed to improve pass coverage, and the team's work in-house was highlighted by re-signing quarterback Kurt Warner.

But as the roster has been reassembled for the 2009 season, it may be special teams where the biggest improvements have been attempted.

"A lot of special teams is just want-to," said Cardinals' special teamer Sean Morey, who was the NFC's Pro Bowl representative in that capacity. "It is encouraging when you have guys who come in and sign as free agents that talk about special teams, guys that care about that part of the game."

Wright said during his pre-signing visit his goal was to become "a dominant special teams player." Lewis was one of San Francisco's key special-teams cogs before being released. Even long snapper Mike Leach is part of the change, with the Cards hoping to improve coverage over the departed Nathan Hodel.

Bringing in Lewis and Wright specifically, special teams coach Kevin Spencer said, "we have made ourselves better in the kicking game."

While coaches of all three facets of the Cardinals must wait until the draft to fully understand the pieces with which they can work, Spencer is in a holding pattern for now. The Cards are fortunate, assuming Wright and Lewis can take hold of contributing positions on offense and defense, respectively. Roster spots are at a premium, as are players who can make an impact on special teams.

Calais Campbell was a key special teams player in 2007, but if he takes over for departed defensive end Antonio Smith as expected, his kicking-game efforts will have to be severely curtailed. That already happened last year with running back Tim Hightower after Hightower became more of a factor in the offense.

"Where is that going to come from?" Spencer said. "Traditionally it is linebackers and defensive backs, but we've got to have a wide receiver other than Sean playing the kicking game and we need a running back.

"Timmy would have been a heck of a special teams player but then Timmy's role changed. Who else will come out of that group other than Jason Wright? We've got to have that. And it has to come from the offensive side of the ball. We need more guys from offense."

Newcomer Justin Green was a good special teams player in Baltimore, Spencer said, but Green must prove himself worthy at fullback to have a spot on the roster. Spencer is also looking for a tight end to emerge for his units.

Assuming Morey makes the team – and even with his Pro Bowl status, that is never a lock – he will be virtually a four specialist, aside from Leach, kicker Neil Rackers and punter Ben Graham. The 53-man roster can't handle more than that.

Linebacker Ali Highsmith was playing well as a rookie last season before blowing out his knee, but Highsmith must be able to fit as a backup on defense as well. That is even more crucial with the advanced ages of current linebackers like Clark Haggans and Chike Okeafor.

Spencer has other issues with which to deal. With Wright replacing J.J. Arrington on the roster, the Cards now are missing a kickoff returner. Wright can likely fill in a pinch, but he's probably not a candidate for every return. Steve Breaston handled punt returns and a lot of kickoff returns, but Spencer said "we can't afford to lose Steven" and said the Cards will be careful with their third 1,000-yard receiver.

Cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie would be intriguing as a return man "but that's not going to happen," Spencer said, not with DRC so important on defense and the injury risk on returns.

For now, Spencer will sift through the current roster and watch the Cards' rookie haul – drafted and undrafted – to see what might come out of it.

Then the Cards will start to see how Wright, Lewis and others fit the equation.

"Someone has to show up," Spencer said. "You can't do it with mirrors."


Contact Darren Urban at askdarren@cardinals.nfl.net. Posted 3/25/09.

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