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Vikings Working Through Early Stages of New NFL Kickoff Rule

EAGAN, Minn. — Kickoff returns are expected to increase substantially this fall because of a rule change approved on a one-year trial basis by NFL Owners in March at the Annual League Meeting.

Teams are in the very early stages of figuring out exactly what that means.

The change could impact the players selected to participate in kickoff coverage and returns, as well as the blueprint designs and tactical executions.

Under the new format …

A kickoff will continue to place the ball at the kicking team's 35-yard line (unless a penalty is enforced).

The 10 non-kicker members of the kicking team will line up with one foot on the receiving team's 40-yard line (instead of having one foot on the kicking team's 34-yard line). Those players cannot move until the ball hits the ground or is touched by another team.

The receiving team will line up with nine of its players in a "setup zone," a 5-yard area between its 35- and 30-yard line. At least seven of those players must have a foot on the 35. The players not on the 35 must line up outside the hash marks. The players in the setup zone cannot move until the ball hits the ground or touches a player.

A maximum of two returners can line up in the landing zone and can move at any time.

The landing zone will be the area between the team's goal line and its 20-yard line.

Any kick that hits before crossing the receiving team's 20-yard line will be spotted at the receiving team's 40 (as it is for a kickoff that goes out of bounds).

Any kick placed in the landing zone must be returned. Any kick that hits in the landing zone and goes into the end zone must be returned or downed by the receiving team. The latter move would result in a touchback to the 20-yard line.

A kick that hits in the end zone and stays inbounds could be returned or downed. If downed, the ball will be spotted at the 35-yard line. A kick that goes out the back of the end zone will result in a touchback to the 35-yard line.

No fair catch or signal is allowed (unlike punt returns).

This post has a nice video breakdown of the new rule:

Vikings Special Teams Coordinator Matt Daniels spoke with Twin Cities media members on Tuesday after Minnesota's second of 10 voluntary scheduled Organized Team Activity practices.

Daniels pointed to the reduction in territory a kicking team needs to run to reach the returner as something that could impact the players selected to cover kicks and the way the team will practice those plays.

"The personnel is going to be huge in terms of who you can put out there," Daniels said. "Now it's more close-proximity, close-quarter combat, and you don't have to worry about those guys running down, taking breath away from them their first defensive snap, but you've really got to turn the focus to the guys who can defeat blocks at the end of the day because of that proximity of the block only being 5 yards away."

There is likely to be an emphasis on players with "heavy hands" who are more accustomed to battles near the line of scrimmage.

"Another aspect of it is, the value of a returner now skyrockets," Daniels said. "And you know, you might even have to have multiple returners back there based on what type of ball is being kicked. Or you can have one back there.

"So it'll be interesting to see how coaches decide across the league, how they want to kind of go about that whether there's one or two, but the value of a returner significantly increases," Daniels added. "You want to have a plethora of those guys back there who can do it, who you can trust to do it, and who can be dangerous with the ball in their hands."

The Vikings are returning Kene Nwangwu for his fourth pro season. He returned two kickoffs for touchdowns as a rookie in 2021 and another in 2022.

Through three seasons, Nwangwu has a career average of 27.6 yards per kickoff return.

As far as practicing, Daniels is able to squeeze in more reps per practice because there's so much less yardage for players to run, but there's so much new material to cover.

"We're all new to this, and it's the teaching phase of it. You have to be very specific, and focusing on one phase at a time, because it's so many different nuances … from a kickoff standpoint, formation standpoint, from a kickoff return standpoint," Daniels said. "You kind of have to have a day where we're solely focusing on kickoff and a day where we're solely focusing on kickoff return, just because there's so many nuances that's built into the new rule."

Daniels welcomes the one-year trial basis because he loves kickoff returns being part of the game.

"You've really got to put your coaching hat on and really get to get to work, so I'm excited about it," Daniels said. "And obviously there's gonna be some things that you might not like about it, some things you're gonna love about it, but you'll work through it. It's just a one-year trial. So we'll see how it goes."