How the NFL’s new hybrid kickoff rule impacts the Saints

With the NFL competition committee recently approving the transition to a new hybrid kickoff model, one of the most pressing matters for New Orleans Saints fans is how this rule change may affect some of the players on the team.

Specialists like kicker Blake Grupe and return man Rashid Shaheed are a couple of guys that will likely have some adjustments to make in regards to the new rules. The whole coverage unit will need to tweak their approach, but few players make as great an impact as those who are kicking the ball away and returning it.

Before I get into this though, I’d like to first give a detailed list of the intricacies within the new rules as a point of reference:

  • The kicking team will kick off from its own 35-yard line.

  • 10 members of the kicking team will line up on the receiving team’s 40-yard line (25 yards in front of their kicker).

  • A minimum of nine members of the receiving team will line up between their own 30 and 35-yard lines (5-10 yards in front of the 10 members of the kicking team).

  • The receiving team can have zero, one or two players inside their own 30-yard line to receive the kickoff.

  • The play begins when the ball is either caught, hits the ground in the landing zone (inside the 20-yard line before the goal line) or is returned from the end zone. That’s when players can begin moving.

  • Any kick that hits the landing zone must be returned.

  • Any kick that bounces from the landing zone into the end zone must be returned or kneeled for a touchback (with possession going out to the 20-yard line).

  • If a kick doesn’t reach the landing zone, the receiving team gets possession at its 40-yard line.

  • If the ball enters the end zone in the air, the receiving team can return it or kneel it for possession at its 30-yard line.

  • If the ball is kicked out of bounds, the receiving team gets possession at its 40-yard line.

  • There are no fair catches.

  • Onside kicks are only permitted in the fourth quarter and must be declared to officials

Assuming you’ve read this through and have somewhat of an understanding of the procedures, I’d like to start off by detailing how these changes may affect someone like Grupe. He kicked off 91 times in 2023, 5th-most in the NFL, and he had 76 touchbacks, which were tied for 3rd-most. But his touchback rate of 83.5% tied for 10th among kickers with 30 or more kickoffs.

Surprisingly, there isn’t too much that changes for the young kicker in terms of distance and procedure. The kicker will be kicking from the same spot (35-yard line), which means the distance will also be the same. There is also no change in sending a kick out of bounds, as it will result in the opponent taking possession at their own 40-yard line. This is also a similar variation to the new rule on the kick not reaching the landing zone. This would also result in opponents possession at their own 40 but is something that we shouldn’t see very often.

With that being said, there is one specific aspect that will now be emphasized in regards to the rule change. In terms of touchbacks, there will likely be a strategy implemented as there is now a 10-yard difference between where the opposing team will be receiving possession, if the kickoff results in a touchback.

The opposing team will receive possession at the 20-yard line if the ball bounces in the landing zone, rolls into the end zone and is kneeled for a touchback. If the ball reaches the end zone through the air and is kneeled, the opposing team would now receive possession at their own 30-yard line.

This will be one of the most interesting decisions that teams will have to make, whether they want to risk a potentially good return kicking it in the landing area or increases the likelihood of a touchback by reaching the end zone through the air with the downside of having decent field position. These types of decisions will likely be determined by the level of threat that a returner gives you on a week-to-week basis, which is where I will be going with my next talking point.

That being Rashid Shaheed. One of the NFL’s top returners, who recently was selected to his first Pro Bowl and is a very dangerous weapon nonetheless. Shaheed returned 18 kicks for 384 yards last season, 9th-most in the league. With how dynamic a player that Shaheed is, how might the new kickoff rules affect his ability as an exceptional return man?

To carry over from the discussion about Grupe in terms of weighing the options for potential returns and touchbacks, Shaheed is the perfect player for this decision. Being that Shaheed has world-class speed and vision as a returner, he is likely one of the NFL’s exceptions when it comes to this strategy. Teams will likely ask their kickers to keep the ball in the air through the endzone to increase the likelihood of a touchback instead of a Shaheed house-call.

This rule change was designed to give returners more opportunities which it most definitely will, but specifically guys like Shaheed likely won’t get as many returns as an average-below average returner. However, since he will likely get more opportunities than in the previous two seasons, look for Shaheed to bring back a kick or two in the first year of this new style of kickoff.

Returners around the league should be ecstatic as their amount of opportunities will go way up along with their value as the men back deep. Should be an exciting addition to the game.

Story originally appeared on Saints Wire