Matt Wile, Richie Leone will compete for the job after 2016 turbulence
Punters are the NFL’s version of a load-bearing wall.
They don’t evoke buzz like granite countertops and aren’t noticed when everything is stable, but if issues develop, people become alarmed.
The Cardinals dealt with too much unease last season, as they cycled through three different punters and finished last in the league in average distance (41.9 yards) and net yardage (37.0).
Matt Wile was added to the team for the final month of the season, and he returns hoping to calm the storm in 2017. His competition for the job will be Richie Leone, who led the Canadian Football League in punting average last season and signed with the Cardinals in January.
Leone said the opportunity was attractive precisely because of the previous uncertainty, as he saw “lot of guys coming in and out” at the position. Both he and Wile will aim to change that, hoping to stand out now in order to subsequently fade into the background during games.
“You definitely want to stay under the radar,” Leone said. “What you really want to do is just flip the field. If you can create a long field for the defense, you’re doing your job.”
Wile came to the Cardinals in December after he excelled against them as a member of the Falcons on Nov. 27. Wile booted a pair of punts 59 and 57 yards in that game as an injury replacement, and then kicked 10 with an average of 43.7 yards per punt in Arizona.
Wile’s biggest drawback last season was his inexperience as a holder. However, he did it down the stretch without any major issues.
“I didn’t hold in college, but I knew once I reached this level I was going to have to,” Wile said. “Back in San Diego, I found some snappers. I had kickers that I worked with. So I always held, and I was ready and comfortable to do it. I just needed an opportunity, and luckily last year I got the opportunity. It feels comfortable.”
Leone was both the punter and kicker for the B.C. Lions last season, as dual duties are a prerequisite if a CFL team uses an American import to kick. Phil Dawson will attempt the field goals for the Cardinals this year, but it’s unknown if he or the punter will handle kickoff duties.
While Arians said kickoff ability won’t really factor into the punting competition, both Wile and Leone have experience doing it.
“It’s one of those things where it’s the more you can do,” Leone said. “We’ll start hitting kickoffs here soon, and we’ll kind of make a decision from there, but I definitely have that in the bag of tricks.”
While Leone and Wile realize one of them will get released by the end of training camp, they have become friendly. Neither is a stranger to the preseason roster battle.
“It’s good having competition,” Wile said. “It makes you work harder. It makes you focus. And in the long run, it makes both guys better.”
As Leone makes the move from the CFL to the NFL, there’s one thing he will probably miss. In Canada, punters can score a point by booting a touchback. Unfortunately, the “rouge” is nowhere to be found in the NFL rulebook.
“You can’t do that here, but you can (contribute) in other ways by pinning them deep,” Leone said. “I think that counts for something.”
After the instability last season, it would be worth a lot to the Cardinals.