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NFL team owners have approved a new rule that will bring kickoff returns back to the game starting in 2024 on a trial basis and subject to renewal in 2025. The new rule is a major overhaul of special teams and takes elements from the XFL kickoff rules. Under the new rule, any kick that reaches the end zone in the air can be returned, and the receiving team can opt for a touchback and possession at the 30-yard line. This change is expected to bring more excitement and newness to the game, as opposed to the many “dead plays” that occurred under the previous rules. The kickoff returners’ value is expected to skyrocket with this change.

The new rule for kickoffs involves setting up the return teams and coverage teams in a specific manner. For a standard kickoff, the ball will be kicked from the 35-yard line with the kick coverage players lined up at the opposing 40. The return team will have at least nine blockers lined up between the 30- and 35-yard line, with at least seven of those players touching the 35. Only the kicker and two returners will be allowed to move until the ball hits the ground or is touched by a returner inside the 20. Any ball caught in the field of play must be returned, and the value of kickoff returners is expected to increase significantly.

The proposal for the new kickoff rule passed by a 29-3 vote, with NFL Competition Committee chairman Rich McKay stating that there was a bit of fear of the unknown but the NFL has seen the potential of this change based on previous tape. The urgency to vote on this rule before the draft stemmed from the potential impact on the way teams structure their rosters. With the new rule, any touchbacks or fair catches in the field of play will result in the receiving team getting the ball at the 30-yard line, as opposed to the previous spot at the 25. Overall, this change is expected to bring a more dynamic and engaging element to the game.

In addition to the new kickoff rule, other rule changes were also approved by the NFL owners. Instant replay can now be used to review whether the game clock expired before the snap, as well as to correct an obvious error when a passer was ruled down by contact or out of bounds before throwing the ball. Teams in the playoffs can now have unlimited returns from injured reserve if they have missed four games, and teams can place up to two players on IR, the physically unable to perform list or non-football injury list before cutting the roster to 53 players and still have them eligible to return. The trade deadline has also been moved back one week to the Tuesday following the end of Week 9, and teams can elevate a “bona fide” quarterback from the practice squad an unlimited amount of times to be the emergency third quarterback. These changes aim to enhance the game in various aspects and bring more flexibility to team management.

Overall, the approval of the new kickoff rule and other changes signifies a significant shift in the NFL’s approach to special teams and gameplay. By reviving kickoff returns as an integral part of the game, the NFL aims to increase excitement and engagement among fans and players. With the new rules in place, teams will have to adapt their strategies and roster management to leverage the opportunities presented by these changes. The impact of these rule changes will be observed during the trial period in 2024 and will be subject to evaluation and potential renewal in 2025 based on the outcomes and feedback from stakeholders.

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