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Is The NFL Going to Kill The Kick Return Specialist?

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The NFL competition committee will be voting on various rule changes next week at the owner's annual meeting. There are some very drastic changes being voted on, including suspensions for flagrant hits, kick-off changes, and automatic review of scoring plays. Obviously the biggest focus will be on the flagrant hits that cause suspensions and how they'll be reviewed and judged, but the kick-off rule changes could change the game dramatically, and eliminate some potential back-end roster positions for some players.

Under the new proposed rule for kick-offs, the NFL would move the kick-off point from the 30-yard line up to the 35-yard line. This would generate likely significantly more touchbacks, so to off-set that, the NFL is proposing moving up the touchback mark from start at the 20-yard line to the 25-yard line. This change alone will be damaging to players who make their bones as return men. While 5-yards on a return seems insignificant, most teams operate on special teams under the guise that unless you can get what you get from a touchback, down the ball in the endzone.

Looking at "dedicated" return men in the 2010 season, only roughly 4 players averaged 26 yards or more on kick-off returns (LaRod Stephens-Howling, Stefan Logan, Brad Smith, and Eric Weems). Jacksonville Jaguars return man, Deji Karim, averaged 25 yards per kick-off last year, so he was as good as a potential 2011 touchback. Even high caliber return men like Seattle Seahawks Leon Washington and Tennessee Titans Marc Mariani didn't eclipse the 26.0 mark, and I'm not sure the potential 0.3-0.7 yards over 25 they average will make special teams coaches comfortable enough to give them the green light to take the ball out of the endzone.

Not only is there a proposal to change the kick-off mark and the touchback start point, but the competition committee is also proposing the elimination of all wedges altogether, even the two-man wedge that is currently legal. A wedge block is when players line up shoulder to shoulder and block. Adding to that, kick coverage units would only be allowed to line up between the 30- and 35-yard lines. This means the coverage specialists would get only a 5-yard head start as opposed to the typical 10- to 15-yard head start.

"The injury rate on kickoffs remains a concern for us," Atlanta Falcons President and Competition Committee Chairman Rich McKay said.

As I mentioned before, this rule change could potentially be devastating to back-end roster players who are simply "return specialists" and offer little to no value in other areas. A team would need to have a truly special talent returning kicks now to be willing to let them gamble on starting their drive further back than the 25-yard line. For players like Jacksonville's Deji Karim it won't likely put him in danger, as he offers value at the running back position. However, for players like return specialist Scotty McGee, who spent last season on injured reserve and doesn't really offer much at all as a defensive back, it could put their roster spot at serious risk.