While other rule changes voted in this week at the NFL owners meetings might receive more attention, the most common change that fans will see in 2016 is moving touchbacks from the 20-yard line to the 25-yard line.
The NFL has been trying to limit what it considers a dangerous play because of the high-impact nature of blocks and tackles on kickoff returns, and moving touchbacks to the 25-yard line could encourage more kickoff returners to take a knee in the end zone and have their team start an offensive series on the 25-yard line.
Still, Rich McKay, the chairman of the Competition Committee that passed the new rule, says there could be another reaction from teams because of the change.
“We passed moving the touchback to the 25, which we do think has a safety element to it,” McKay said. “We passed that also for one year because we do want to see if it changes the numbers and how it impacts the game because there is that thought that there will be some more short kicks.”
In 2015 there were 11 kickers who had more than 15 kickoffs and put two-thirds or more of them for touchbacks, led by Indianapolis’ Pat McAfee having 87 percent of his 77 kickoffs go unreturned.
Only seven kickoffs were returned for touchdowns on the season – Chicago’s Robbie Gould was the only kicker to have more than one returned for a touchdown. In all, two-tenths of a percent of kickoffs were returned for touchdowns while the average return was 23.6 yards.
The average starting field position after kickoffs was the 21.6-yard line and Minnesota led the league with an average starting position of the 25.0-yard line.
“Touchbacks will go up as far as percentages, so the league will accomplish that goal,” kicker Nick Novak told the Houston Chronicle. “You’re also going to see more kickers getting creative and hanging it up to try to lengthen the field as much as they can. You will still have aggressive special-teams coaches, but when you catch it five yards deep in the end zone and can down it and have a 25-yard return, that’s a pretty good return.”
Last year, New England’s Stephen Gostkowski and Carolina’s Graham Gano led the NFL with 69 touchbacks each. Twenty-one kickers had 40 or more touchbacks, and that number could rise if return teams see the benefit of simply downing the ball in the end zone and starting the offense on the 25-yard line.
However, 10 return men averaged more than 25 yards per return, led by Minnesota’s Cordarrelle Patterson with a 31.8-yard average and two returns for a touchdown.
Because of Patterson’s success, teams occasionally decided to kick it short of him, either hanging it high or drilling it low so someone in front of Patterson would return the kick. That led to seven different Vikings returning kicks in addition to Patterson, and Minnesota often employed additional returners in front of Patterson. Fullback Zach Line ended up with three returns and punt returner Marcus Sherels had two, despite Patterson still lining up deep to return kicks that reached the end zone.
Former NFL special teams coach Gary Zauner believes the strategy for teams kicking off could change as the season progresses.
"In college, the teams that have a lot of speed aren’t going to kick it deep and will hang it high and short and try to tackle them by covering the kick,” Zauner told the Chronicle. “In the beginning of the NFL season, I think it will be fine before there are a lot of injuries. Later in the season, when guys get hurt and you have some starters covering kicks on special teams, I think that’s when that approach will change and people will be kicking it out of the end zone again.”