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New NFL kickoff rules could be good news for the Patriots

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By: Bernd Buchmasser

Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

The league voted to drastically change the play for the 2024 season.

The NFL annual meeting brought even more change to one of the game’s most polarizing plays: the kickoff. For the sixth time in the last 13 years, the league has voted to tweak the rules governing kickoffs.

This latest modification might be the most drastic yet. After previously adopted proposals changed the spot of touchbacks and fair catches, and eliminated wedge and blindside blocks as well as running starts, the new rule will create an entirely different setup — one that was already in use in the XFL.

Now, the NFL has voted to adopt it. The New England Patriots were among the 29 teams voting in favor of the new rules.

What exactly are those, though?

According to league’s modified rules, this new kickoff format “[c]reates a new form of a free kick play that is designed to: (1) resemble a typical scrimmage play by aligning players on both teams closer together and restricting movement to reduce space and speed; and (2) promote more returns.”

Basically speaking, the league wants fewer high-speed collisions but more returns. In order to achieve those goals, team lineup configurations will changed and runbacks simultaneously incentivized.

The first change is that players on both the kicking and the receiving team will align closer together in predefined zones in the receiving team’s half of the field. The NFL published the following graphics to illustrate what this new setup will look like:

The two teams’ players will align in the kickoff (kicking team) and setup (receiving team) zones before the ball is kicked, and are not allowed to move until it hits either the ground or is touched by a player in the landing or the end zones. Meanwhile, all kicks that land inside the landing zone have to be returned — fair catches on kickoffs are a thing of the past.

There is more to the rule change, including various sets of touchbacks (for kicks into the end zone, short of the landing zone, or out of bounds) and new onside kick rules (which are now only allowed to be used in the fourth quarter and have to be pre-declared to the officials). The biggest change, however, remains the lineup modifications plus the league making returns mandatory from inside the landing zone.

This, in turn, drastically changes what kickoffs look like. A look at the XFL makes this rather clear:

The changes to the kickoff procedure also might prove a positive for the Patriots when all is said and done.

As Eric Galko, current East-West Shrine Bowl executive and former XFL director of player personnel, explains, kickoffs will “likely be more closely analogous to a spaced out run play” rather than a traditional kickoff returns. This, in turn, means that the return and coverage units themselves will also look different.

From a returner perspective, vision and elusiveness will become more important. The Patriots, of course, have some players on their roster fitting that bill.

Tops among them is All-Pro punt returner Marcus Jones, who has proven himself more than capable of succeeding under similar circumstances. In addition, players such as Rhamondre Stevenson, Antonio Gibson, DeMario Douglas and Jalen Reagor — the latter returning a traditional kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown last season — also might factor into the mix due to their skillsets and experience with the ball in their hands.

Returners alone can only do so much, of course, meaning that the blocking up front will also be paramount. At this point in time, that might be the most prominent question mark for the Patriots after they will return only three of their top 10 special teamers in 2023 and also remain a work in progress in the tight end department (a position group that might become more valuable for special teams under those new rules).

The coverage department also saw some losses over the course of the offseason, including now-retired former captain Matthew Slater. That said, the Patriots do appear to have some good replacement options on their roster for this new type of kickoff. Safety/linebackers hybrids such as Kyle Dugger, Jabrill Peppers or Marte Mapu, as well as athletic off-ball linebackers like Jahlani Tavai or Sione Takitaki could end up playing big roles.

In general, the new kickoff rules might force a change in roster construction. Now that the kickoff will start resembling a more traditional scrimmage play, core special teamers like Slater might see their value decrease in favor of more well-rounded players.

The Patriots, of course, appear to have already jumped onto this train this offseason: Slater retired, Chris Board and Adrian Phillips were released, and Cody Davis remains unsigned. Instead, the team invested in players that might now become more important contributors on that particular type of play.

The aforementioned Antonio Gibson and Sione Takitaki, as well as tight end Austin Hooper and safety Jaylinn Hawkins, all could end up falling in this category in 2024.

Time will tell what will happen, and whether the rule change will actually stay in effect beyond its one-year trial. However, the Patriots appear well-prepared to continue their success on kickoffs one year after ranking in the top six in the NFL in both return and coverage yardage.

Originally posted on Pats Pulpit