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Why NY Jets will be heavily affected by NFL’s wild new kickoff rules

NY Jets
Greg Zuerlein

The New York Jets could be one of the biggest beneficiaries of the NFL’s new kickoff rules

On Tuesday, it was reported that NFL owners had voted to approve new kickoff rules for the 2024 season. Here’s a breakdown of how the rules will work if you’re unfamiliar:

With the NFL constantly tweaking kickoff rules to improve player safety, kickoff returns were becoming increasingly uncommon over the past few years. Things came to a breaking point in 2023 with the introduction of the fair catch rule. The average NFL team returned 1.1 kickoffs per game, an all-time low. The previous record low was 1.8 in 2019, and the 2023 mark of 1.1 was less than half the league average as recently as 2014 (2.4). It’s barely more than a quarter of where it was as recently as 2008 (4.0).

The play had become obsolete – nothing more than a ceremonious ritual to give the special teams players some mild cardio. In response, the league wanted to find a way to encourage more returns without sacrificing player safety. This is what led to the new rules that were approved today.

The new format will be a drastic departure from what teams became accustomed to. It will take everyone some time to adjust.

Among the teams with the steepest adjustment curves is the New York Jets. But if they handle the adjustment correctly, New York is uniquely positioned to be one the biggest beneficiaries of the new rules.

New York’s kickoff return coverage unit will actually have to play football now

Due to the play style of their kicker, Greg Zuerlein, the Jets will be one of the teams who are most affected by the new rules.

Known for his powerful leg, Zuerlein’s approach on kickoffs has been to simply boot the ball through the back of the end zone. Zuerlein kicked a touchback on 90.6% of his kickoffs in 2023, the second-highest rate among kickers. This is a big reason why the Jets only had to defend eight kickoff returns all year, tied for the third-fewest.

In 2022, Zuerlein led qualified kickers with an 83.9% touchback rate, helping the Jets finish with an NFL-low of 12 opponent kickoff returns.

Ultimately, the Jets only had to defend 20 kickoff returns over the past two seasons, tied with the Commanders for the fewest in football. Across 34 games, that’s just 0.6 kickoff returns per game.

The Jets’ kickoff coverage unit has been almost meaningless since Zuerlein arrived. Thanks to his ability to kick the ball through the end zone on command, the Jets have not had to worry about stopping kickoff returns.

While kickoff returns have gone down across the NFL, the Jets minimized opponent returns to an extreme degree compared to the rest of the NFL. Many other teams preferred to encourage opposing kickoff returns since they knew that a fairly high percentage of returns do not make it back to the 25-yard line anyway.

Rather than have the kicker fire missiles through the goalposts on every kickoff, some teams often had their kicker launch a high-arching ball that was designed to land just outside of the end zone, forcing a return while buying time for the coverage team to get downfield. This is something the Jets rarely attempted in Zuerlein’s two years with the team.

The Jets’ touchback-heavy style mitigated risk, deterring any chance of an opposing touchdown or field-flipping return, but it might have cost them yards in the aggregate since they consistently gifted the 25-yard line. Conversely, forcing returns would typically result in frequent stops shy of the 25-yard line. In addition, the odds of the opposing team fumbling the ball away are similar to the odds of them scoring a touchdown, which negated the touchdown risk. It was also common for penalties to back the team up inside of their own 20. Overall, forcing returns was arguably a better choice than constantly kicking touchbacks.

That whole conversation is a thing of the past now, but looking to the future, what matters is that the teams who were already asking their kickers to pop the ball up and force returns will be more prepared for the new rules than teams like the Jets who consistently booted touchbacks. Their coverage units are more experienced at defending returns, and their kickers are more experienced at kicking the ball shy of the end zone.

Zuerlein will no longer be able to launch catapults through the end zone, as touchbacks in the air will put the ball out at the 30-yard line. That is too harsh of a punishment for touchbacks to be acceptable anymore. The new norm in the NFL will be to pooch high-arching balls as far deep into the “landing zone” (20-yard line to the goal line) as possible without letting it get into the end zone. Zuerlein will have to work on mastering this technique.

Fortunately for the Jets, Zuerlein has shown the potential to perform just fine at this type of kickoff. Zuerlein has done a good job of coordinating with his coverage team on kickoffs throughout his career. Since he entered the league, Zuerlein’s returned kickoffs have averaged just 22.1 yards per return (on a large sample of 264 returns). This suggests he is perfectly capable of kicking with accuracy to set up his coverage team for success.

As long as Zuerlein can successfully master the new kickoff technique, the Jets are built to benefit immensely from the new rules. Their recent production on special teams is a sign that they may be better prepared for this new era than anybody.

Brant Boyer should have the Jets prepared to shut down returns

We are going to see a lot more kickoff returns this year. The 30-yard-line touchback rule is going to make sure of it. So, kickoff return coverage is going to become a much more important part of the game.

While the Jets’ coverage unit rarely faced kickoff returns over the past few years, they performed excellently on the rare occasions when they actually did.

Here is where the Jets ranked in yards allowed per kickoff return over the past three seasons:

  • 2023: 1st (15.4)
  • 2022: 5th (20.9)
  • 2021: 1st (17.8)

Over the past decade, special teams coordinator Brant Boyer has been the greatest model of consistency within the entire Jets organization. Boyer has led the Jets’ special teams unit to consistent success despite a revolving door of regimes around him and constant roster turnover.

With his track record, we can trust that Boyer will ensure his players are fully versed in the new rules. And since Boyer’s unit already has an outstanding track record of success at defending kickoffs (albeit over a small sample size), the potential is there for the Jets to be one of the NFL’s best return-thwarting teams in this new return-happy league.

The Jets’ elite efficiency at defending kickoffs over the past three years had a minimal impact on the team’s overall success since those plays were so uncommon. But kickoffs are about to become a much bigger part of the game. If the Jets can maintain their recent success at shutting down kickoffs, it is going to be a significant net-positive on the team’s overall chances of winning each week.

What about the return unit?

New York has a promising outlook in the kickoff coverage department. However, there is a lot of uncertainty surrounding their kickoff return unit.

Since Braxton Berrios’ huge year in 2021, the Jets have lacked explosiveness in the kickoff return game. New York’s longest kickoff return over the past two years went for only 42 yards. In 2023, their longest was only 34 yards.

Xavier Gipson held down the kickoff return duties in 2023, but the rookie struggled mightily. He averaged only 23.4 yards per return (long of 34 yards) across 22 chances and also lost a fumble on the opening kickoff in Buffalo. Due to Gipson’s fumble and an overall lack of game-altering plays, the Jets finished 32nd in the league in kickoff return DVOA (-4.1).

Gipson remains on the roster and could be included in a competition, but the Jets should view the kickoff returner role as vacant. They can do much better than Gipson. Whether it’s a proven veteran or a dynamic late-round pick, the Jets must target an exciting option for the kickoff returner role as they prepare for the upcoming boom in returns.

Boyer has shown in the past that he can get his unit to block effectively enough for a talented returner to succeed at an elite level. In Boyer’s eight seasons with the team, he sent two kickoff returners to the Pro Bowl: Andre Roberts in 2018 and Berrios in 2021. The Jets just need to find the right returner.

Finding a good returner was not a priority for NFL teams in recent years due to the increasing scarcity of kickoff returns. The introduction of these new rules could prompt teams to place a higher value on return skills in the draft this year. If this occurs in the Jets’ draft room, it would be a good thing. Boyer has shown he can build the infrastructure of a high-ranking return unit, so if Douglas gives him a great returner to work with, the Jets’ ceiling in the return game would be high.

Over the past few years, if an NFL team did not have an explosive return game, it was hardly noticeable. Going forward, teams that lack explosiveness in the return game will suffer a little bit more than they did in the past. The Jets will want to ensure they are not included in that group.

The new rules could lead to success for the Jets

I think the Jets are well-equipped to handle the new rules on the defensive side of special teams. While Zuerlein must face an adjustment curve compared to his recent style, he is a veteran kicker who should have no problem making the change. As long as Zuerlein is able to transition smoothly, the Jets should thrive thanks to their track record of excellent kickoff coverage under Boyer.

Offensively, though, the Jets have some work to do. They need more talent at the returner position. As things stand, the Jets lack a talented returner in a league where kickoff returns are about to become far more common. That would hurt the Jets as they seek to gain every advantage they possibly can to try and get over the hump in a short-term Super Bowl window.

However, Boyer has shown multiple times in the past that he can coach his unit to block in the return game at a Pro Bowl level, so the potential is there for New York to have an exciting return game if Joe Douglas can find the right man for the job.

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1 month ago

With the drastic change in position of the blocking units, I don’t think any team’s past performances are a necessary predictor of how this will play out. I do think the acumen of the coordinators however (and Boyer’s a good one) is a major benefit. Additionally, the type of blocking now seems to be completely different so the type of players required may also change; heavier types over the Justin Hardee style gunners running long distances. Maybe a reason why he’s still unsigned. Draft strategy in the middle rounds may also be altered somewhat due to this change. I like the attempt here at being more open to such a drastic strategy change.

1 month ago

I think this will just increase fair catches on kickoffs. Teams that try to pop the kick to the 1 ish yard line will see returners fair catching the ball in place of the “touchback.” That being said, muffs do happen etc, so it may increase more action in that regard but as far returns are concerned, this is 6 of 1, half dozen of another, in my opinion. Maybe more squib kicks? We’ll see.