In an effort to reduce the number of injuries incurred on kickoffs, the NFL has voted to move kickoffs from the 30-yard line to the 35-yard line, resulting in more frequent touchbacks and, ultimately, less contact on special teams.
Additionally, the kicking team will no longer be allowed to make a running start and will be required to be no further back than the 30-yard line in order to reduce the velocity on contact.
What does this mean for free agent special teamers? For many, it may mean the end of their career.
Punters will no longer be valued for any level of strategy and/or aim, but only for distance. Each kickoff will be intended to go through the end zone rather than aimed to avoid a talented return man and strategically placed for optimal blocking.
Teams with free agent return specialists are likely to look elsewhere on their depth chart for individuals who are able to simply make a fair catch or protect a touchback. There will no longer be a need for dynamic return men who are able to eat yards and gain field position on each kick—there just won’t be the opportunity for returns any more.
The special teamers that stand to be re-signed are those who have to capacity to be utility players. This won’t mean their contract will raise much. They won’t have anything to leverage. Owners will only be too eager to add depth to their roster and free up some cap space and players that haven’t contributed outside of special teams will find themselves in a take it or leave it situation in most cases.
Plus, those specialists who do manage to be re-signed in solely a specialist capacity can expect to have their contracts reduced as the position no longer reaps as valuable a return as it has over the past decade or so—since the kickoff was originally pulled from the 35-yard line to the 30-yard line in 1994.
On the other hand, linebackers and cornerbacks who are free agents may be able to leverage their interception count against their opponents’ probable reduction in field position and lobby for a salary boost.
With starting position being moved back what is likely to be an average of about five yards per possession across the league, a turnover is going to be dramatically more valuable. It’s likely we’ll see an increase in touchdowns on interceptions and defensive free agents would be smart to make a case for that in any upcoming contract negotiations.
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