NFL’s new kickoff rule completely change start of possessions

A major change to NFL kickoffs is coming. Owners voted on Tuesday morning, passing the proposed rule to change kickoff procedures to mirror the XFL model. It’s the latest in an effort to reduce injuries, while also ensuring kick returns can be a part of the game.

This change comes after a 2023 season that saw almost no kick returns at all because of the ball placement. That changes, with all kicks needing to be in the field of play — while also ensuring players don’t have the open field required to reach full speed, and hit maximum impact.

Here’s everything that changed and how it will work.

The kick itself

The ball will be placed at the 35-yard-line as it is now, however now the ball must land inside a 20-yard “landing zone” before the goal line. As long as the ball hits the turf (or is received) inside the landing zone, it’s a legal kick. If the ball makes its first contact outside the landing zone, including being kicked through the back of the end zone, it will result in a touchback — with the ball being placed at the opposing 35-yard line.

Yes… THE OPPOSING 35-YARD LINE. As in, only 15 yards away from the Red Zone. However, this only applies on the initial contact, not the roll. If the ball touches inside the landing zone, and then rolls out it will be placed at the receiving team’s 20 yard line, a substantial change to the current rule.

What does this mean?

Kickoffs are going to look completely different. The way this manifested in the XFL was essentially seeing short, but standard trajectory kicks.

While we could see this initially, over time we could easily see this morph to a higher loft, rugby-style kickoff designed to give the ball maximum hang time and prevent any opportunity for return yards.

The gunners/blockers

The majority of the kicking team will line up on the opponent’s side of the field for the first time in NFL history. Starting at the opposing 40-yard line, they will have five yards of space before making contact with blockers.

What does this mean?

This is the real meat and potatoes of the rule change. It prevents players on both sides of the ball from hitting their max speed before making contact, but still allows contact.

Ultimately we’ll see return styles alter as a result. Instead of players reaching full speed and looking for a hole, they’ll now need to read blocking more akin to a running back.

The returners

Returners will line up at the five yard line inside the landing zone. Otherwise their job is more or less unchanged. However, the alteration in what is considered out of bounds will alter how players judge the ball in flight.

What does this mean?

It’s a massive benefit to the returning team if a kicker sends the ball out of bounds. The difference is that now the ball simply needs to land inside the zone to be legal, rather than depend on its resting spot.

Returners will be required to better judge the ball in flight and potentially maximize any potential touchbacks. In addition, there is no benefit to allowing the ball to bounce — meaning sure hands at the return position is more critical than ever.

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