NFL approves new kickoff rule; how Falcons can benefit

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The NFL has made one of the most dramatic rule changes in its history. League owners voted Tuesday to completely alter the kickoff.

Here’s the explanation from Pro Football Talk:

Under the new rule, 10 players on the kicking team and at least nine players on the receiving team will line up just five yards apart and won’t begin running until the ball gets back to the returner, meaning players won’t be going full speed when they crash into each other, which caused so many injuries on kickoffs in years past. Of the 22 players on the field, only the kicker and one or two kickoff returners will line up separately from those players who are five yards apart.

The kicker will kick the ball from his own 35-yard line. Ten of his teammates will line up on the other team’s 40-yard line. The receiving team’s nine or 10 blockers will line up on their own 35-yard line. The kick must land between the 20-yard line and the goal line. A kick that either goes out of bounds or lands short of the 20 will be awarded to the receiving team at the 40-yard line. A kick that goes into the end zone for a touchback will go out to the receiving team’s 30-yard line.

The goal is to increase activity while decreasing the risk of injury, which is hilariously ironic, but I’m willing to give it a chance because I miss kickoffs. They’ve effectively been phased out of the game and taken away one of the most exciting plays in the NFL.

For the Falcons, they are a team that could potentially benefit tremendously from the new rule change. Cordarrelle Patterson, who is tied for the most kickoffs returned for a touchdown in league history, is no longer in the fold, but Atlanta has a pair of dynamic returners to field kickoffs in 2024.

Avery Williams, who missed the entire 2023 campaign, is set to return from an ACL injury. During the 2022 campaign, Atlanta’s special teams were elite under Marquice Williams, who coordinated the fifth-ranked special teams unit in the NFL by DVOA that year.

The former fifth-round pick averaged 16.2 yards per return, which was nearly double the 8.88-yard league average in 2022. Though he didn’t handle many kickoffs because of Patterson, Williams is a special teams ace that should really thrive within the new rules.

The Falcons also added Ray-Ray McCloud this offseason. The 27-year-old spent the last two seasons with the 49ers, where he handled the lion’s share of punt and kick returns. Last year, he was about league average in punt and kick return yardage but was well above average the year prior.

He had 24 punt returns for 203 yards and 10 kick returns for 225 yards last year but his best season came with the Steelers. McCloud had 38 punt returns for 367 yards — both of which led the NFL — and 35 kick returns for 776 yards.

The third phase of the game is often forgotten about, but it’s where games are won and lost sometimes. The Falcons have hopes of contending with Kirk Cousins under center. Bolstering this facet of the team is wise to maximize their window.
Photographer: Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire
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