How the New Kickoff Rule Impacts the Bears Kick Return Situation

Dec 10, 2023; Chicago, Illinois, USA; Chicago Bears wide receiver Velus Jones Jr. (12) practices
Dec 10, 2023; Chicago, Illinois, USA; Chicago Bears wide receiver Velus Jones Jr. (12) practices / Mike Dinovo-USA TODAY Sports

NFL kickoffs are going to look very different in 2024 after owners voted overwhelmingly in favor of approving a new set of kickoff rules.

The new hybrid kickoff model was derived from the XFL's take on the kickoff, which is quite different from how the normal NFL kickoff operates. The full rules are a bit of a mess to read through, but it's not as complicated as it might seem.

The kicker will now kick from the 35-yard line instead of the 30-yard line. The other ten members of the kicking team will now line up on the opposing team's 40-yard line, with nine blockers on the receiving team lining up at the 35-yard line. Between the 40-35 is a 5-yard neutral zone where no headshots are allowed.

Players must stay still until the ball is caught or hits the landing zone. The landing zone is between the 20-yard line and the back of the end zone. If the ball doesn't land in the landing zone, it will be automatically placed at the 35-yard line. However, any kick that lands in the landing zone and is downed in the endzone for a touchback will be placed at the 20, but if the ball hits or goes through the back of the endzone on the fly, it will be placed at the 30-yard line. Finally, this rule forces special teams coaches to declare when onside kicks are happening, so there is no longer the ability to catch a team with a surprise onside kick.

The new hybrid kickoff rule makes the Bears kick returner situation more interesting than it already was. Currently, the Bears have both Velus Jones Jr. and Dante Pettis as potential kick return options next season.

Jones is the speedier of the two returners, averaging 27.2 yards per return on 16 returns last season. Despite this, Jones has had issues fielding punts and kickoffs throughout his career. However, the new kickoff rule might benefit Jones since the kicking team can't move until the ball is caught or hits the landing zone.

This will allow Jones to focus more on fielding the kicks instead of worrying about getting hit right away. Even though that shouldn't be an issue for an NFL player, it seems like it may be for Jones.

Pettis is more reliable when it comes to fielding kickoffs. However, Pettits' lack of breakaway speed could mightily hurt his chances of being the primary kickoff returner with the implementation of the new rule.

Speed will now be very important to possess in a returner since players are more condensed, making it easier for faster players to break a kick to the outside and set their team up with great field position. Although the new kickoff leans toward speedy returners, Pettis might still end up with a position on kickoff return since each team is allowed to have two returners back in the landing zone. If the Bears don't find a stable kickoff returner going into next season, it might be smart to put both Pettis and Jones back as returners just to be safe.

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