Chiefs’ Harrison Butker might be sidelined for kickoff duty with NFL’s new rules

With the NFL’s new kickoff rules, the Chiefs are looking to cover all the bases.

Place kicker Harrison Butker was joined by safety Justin Reid and rookie running back Louis Rees-Zammit attempting kicks in Thursday’s practice, indicating the Chiefs plan different approaches for the play that didn’t produce much action in recent years.

In fact, Butker, who has teed it up 627 times in his career, might not be the first choice in the new kickoff world.

“I’d like to have somebody who can make a tackle,” Chiefs assistant head coach and special teams coordinator Dave Toub said. “Butker is able to make a tackle, but I don’t want him making tackles all year long.”

Too much injury risk for someone who has delivered many clutch kicks for the Chiefs, especially in the postseason, since joining the team in 2017.

“Justin can go down there and make tackles,” Toub said. “He’s the extra guy a (return team) is not accounting for. You have to get him blocked. You have to give up blocking somebody else.”

Toub is energized over the new rule. To address the lowest kickoff rate in NFL history in 2023, NFL teams approved the new rules that will have 10 members of the kicking team line up at the receiving team’s 40 yard line.

A minimum of nine members of the receiving team will line up between the 30 and 35 yard lines, with one or two back as returners.

After the kick, the plays begins when the ball is either caught, or hits the ground in the landing zone (between the receiving team’s 20-yard line and goal line) or is returned from the end zone.

Any kick that hits in the landing zone must be returned. Any kick that bounces from the landing zone to the end zone must be returned or downed by the receiving team for a touchback, with the ball coming out to the 20.

If a kick fails to reach the landing zone, the receiving team takes possession at the 40.

Kickoff accuracy will be paramount. The idea on most kickoffs will be to get the ball into the landing zone and make the return man work to field the ball.

“We’re trying to get the ball on the ground, away from the returner, as quickly as possible,” Toub said. “The kickoff team can go as soon as the ball hits the ground in the target zone. Not when it’s touched.”

That’s what Butker, Reid and Rees-Zammit were attempting on Thursday, punching line drives into the landing zone, away from the returners.

“Hang time doesn’t matter now,” Toub said. “Hang time is out the door. It’s all about accuracy, seeing where the returners are lined up and trying to kick away from them in the corners.”

A bad kick is costly. The receiving team will get the ball at the 40 if the ball is kicked out of bounds.

Toub sees running backs more than wide receivers as return specialists.

“They have to be not only good returners, but solid, able to take a hit and bounce back from a lot of tackles,” Toub said. “”They’ll have to be really good blockers.”

During OTAs, the Chiefs have alternated emphasizing kickoff coverage and kickoff return each day. Thursday, was a kickoff coverage day with the expanded kicking lineup. Rees-Zammit was getting looks because of his rugby background.

“Louis has done above and beyond what I expected,” Toub said. “He can kick field goals, he can be a kickoff guy for us. He’s every bit as good as Justin on kickoffs. And he’s really working hard at the return game.”

Reid filled in for Butker in the 2022 opener on kickoffs and place kicking when Butker suffered an injury. Reid went 1 for 2 on extra points and had a touchback before Butker returned.

A Chiefs team that has won the last two and three of the previous five Super Bowls will plan for every contingency.

“The team that figures it out kickoff and kickoff return is going to really excel early,” Toub said. ”We want to be that team.”