March 24, 2011

New kickoff rules limit kick returners; Saints draft strategy changed?

The NFL Competition committee made four rules changes at end of the NFL Owner's meetings in New Orleans on Tuesday.  The changes will have an impact on special teams - kickoffs especially - and could impact the Saints draft strategy.  Here's why.

  1.  Kickoffs have been moved five yards closer to the opposing goal line - from the 30 yard line to the 35.  This reverses a competition rules change made in 1994 that moved kickoffs from the 35 to the 30 to reduce touchbacks to the make the game more exciting.  The league outlawed three-man "wedges" in 2009 but and this year voted to continue allowing two-man wedges.

    "The bottom line is it's ... the highest risk of injury play," Sean Payton told ESPN.  The league reversed the 1994 change in the name of player safety, a reason which doesn't exist in a vacuum outside of the current labor unrest. 

    The Saints' Courtney Roby was injured on a kickoff return against St. Louis last season, suffering a significant concussion which hospitalized him and ended his season in December.  The injury was the result of a high-speed head-on collision which is typical on kickoff returns. 

    Other high-profile injuries from kickoff returns include life-threatening spine injuries to Bills TE Kevin Everett, Rutgers DT Eric LeGrand, Texans DT Cedric Killings, Texans WR Harry Williams, and New York Dragons (AFL) lineman Al Lucas.  Lucas died of his injuries, the others had career-ending neck injuries. Everett's four hour emergency surgery used cutting edge medicine to save his life.

    Consideration was given to moving the ball placement following touchbacks from the 20 to the 25 yard line, to encourage more touchbacks, but that rule was not implemented.
  2. The league also is hoping to reduce the speed of collisions during kick returns by preventing coverage players from getting more than a five yard running head start.
  3. Instant replay's use has been expanded, allowing the booth to initiate a video review of any scoring play.  This would not require a coach's challenge.
  4. The committee pre-empted any possible changes to the playing turf color by outlawing any color but green.
The general idea is that the number of kickoff returns will be reduced by eleven percent.

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, we can expect a reversal of observed statistical changes from the 1994 rules change, comparing five seasons' worth of numbers before and after the rules change. The touchback percentage of kickoffs in 1993 was 27.1%.  That stat was 16.1% last season, and since NFL kickers haven't become any less strong since 1993, we can expect more than a quarter of kickoffs to result in touchbacks in 2011.

Former Saints KR Michael Lewis' single season NFL record 2432 yards of combined kickoff (1807) and punt return (625) yardage, set in 2002, may now be more safe than ever.  Lewis (2002) and Tyrone Hughes (1996) also co-own the team record for most kickoff returns in a season at 70, a number which will likely stand forever. 

How would this impact the Saints' 2011 draft strategy?

When the league opens business again, the team will have no dedicated kickoff returner under contract- Courtney Roby will be an unrestricted free agent.  Pierre Thomas has experience on kick returns, and to a lesser extent Robert Meachem and Devery Henderson.  Thomas plays a larger roles on offense and the Saints won't want to give him a full workload as kick returner. 

Meachem and Henderson have speed but don't have a lot of success or history in the job.  Without Roby, the Saints went to Meachem and Henderson on kickoff returns late in the 2010 season, with mediocre results.

The Saints have used kickoff return specialists like Roby, Skyler Green and Michael Lewis during the Payton era, and since Thomas' ascension to a major contributor on offense, he hasn't been the team's first option for the job.  Kick returner is a dangerous job by NFL standards, not something you want to regularly expose key contributors to. 

Now that kickoff returners are expected to be roughly eleven percent less important, will the Saints continue their strategy of using a dedicated returner?  Or will the Saints abandon the use of a kick return specialist and turn to a platoon of speedy players who also contribute on offense?

We've predicted the Saints taking potential kick returner in the second or third rounds of our offseason mock drafts so far, including Kentucky's dynamic Randall Cobb or TCU's Jeremy Kerley. 

NFL teams like the Colts and Panthers who often keep a second placekicker on the roster solely for use on kickoffs will likely also leave kickoff duties to others.  The Saints at times kept a second kicker on hand when their primary placekicker was John Carney, whose age was limiting his kickoff distance.

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