With the new kickoff rule that moves the kickoff from the 30- to 35-yard line, many critics believe this will virtually eliminate the role of the kickoff return specialist and render kickoffs a mere formality from this point forward. However, upon taking a closer look at the average yardage per kicker on their kickoffs in the 2010 regular season, more than half of the league's kickers will still be challenged to reach the end zone.
Most fans of the Baltimore Ravens' Billy Cundiff are well aware that he tied the NFL record with 40 touchbacks last year, with the next closest kicker (Oakland Raiders' Sebastian Janikowski) ony having 29 touchbacks. Cundiff's average kickoff in 2010 went an amazing 71.1 yards, meaning on average, they went over a yard into the end zone.
Under the new rules, if Cundiff averages the same yardage from the 35-yard line, his kicks will land an average of around six yards deep in the end zone, virtually assuring that he will shatter the current record. Cundiff may nt be alone in putting the ball deep into the end zone in 2011, but as entioned earlier, the rest of the league will still need to fly down the field to make sure that their kickoffs are not returned.
From the 35-yard line, if you look at the 2010 season stats at NFL.com, only 14 kickers, including Cundiff, average at least the 65 yards that would land in the end zone under the new rule. Furthermore, no kicker other than Cundiff, averaged more than what would now be three yards deep into the end zone. That means that many returners will surely continue to bring the ball out of the end zone, ensuring the continued need for a solid kick returner. In fact, with the ball being kicked deeper than ever before and many teams unwilling to just accept starting at the 20 yard line with a touchback, the premier kick returners may be even more important than ever before.
What the league is doing to protect the players on a the "Suicide Squads" which seem to have even more injuries than either offense or defense due to the speed and violent collisions, may not end up having the desired effect. At the same time, many teams will not have that Devin Hester or Josh Cribbs type of player who is a threat to return the kickoff for a touchdown every time they touch the ball.
In summary, the jury should remain out on the benefit to players' health with this new rule change until at least after the 2011 season, depending of course, if and when there is a 2011 NFL season.