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Brant Boyer and Jets Special Teams Tackle 'Huge Unknown' of New Kickoff Rules

ST Coordinator: Mastering the KO Landscape Will Be 'Big Challenge' but with 'Opportunities for Some Big Plays'


Every year in the NFL, there are rules changes. Some new rules are hardly ripples in the pool. Some are quick and easy excursions around the lake.

And some, such as the new kickoff rules for the 2024 season, are sailing into uncharted territory.

"Until we get them out there in game reps ... really, nobody knows," Jets special teams coordinator Brant Boyer said during the full-squad minicamp earlier this month. "I think there's a huge unknown, to be honest with you."

Boyer is one of the top special teams coaches in the league, and his staff and players have been consumed with trying to get a handle on the new rules during the slightly slower, lower-contact offseason practices.

"We've done nothing but study, study and study," he said. "We've been in here almost every day trying to figure out what's going to work best, but nobody knows until you strap it on and the preseason games start. You can try to do 11-on-11 out here and stuff like that, but you just can't get the speed that it's going to take, so you don't know where you're going to be able to do things."

The many new rules for kickoffs and returns are the NFL's latest attempt to strike that perfect balance between more exciting plays and fewer serious injuries. What will kickoffs look like in the year ahead? Let us count some of the ways.

  • All kicking team players other than the kicker (who will still kick from his 35) will line up with one foot on the receiving team's 40-yard line. These players can't move until the kick hits the ground or a player in the "landing zone" or the end zone.
  • At least nine receiving team players must line up in the "setup zone" between their 30 and 35, and seven of them must have a foot on the 35. A maximum of two returners may line up in the landing zone (goal line to 20).
  • Any kick that first hits in the LZ must be returned. Any kick that first hits short of the LZ is treated like a kick out of bounds, first-and-10 from the receiving team's 40. Any kick that hits in the LZ and then goes into the end zone must be returned or downed by the receiving team. If downed for a touchback, the ball is spotted at the 20.
  • Yet another variety of touchback: Any kick that first hits in the EZ and stays inbounds, which must be either returned or downed for a touchback, and any kick that goes through the EZ, in the air or on the bounce. These TBs get the ball spotted at the 30.

The fans will be drawn to their returners, who suddenly will go from arms outstretched and jogging to their sideline, signaling an unreturnable kickoff, to returning many kickoffs, some of them for many yards.

"I think 22 percent of all kicks last year were returned," Boyer said. "I'll bet you that number goes to anywhere around 70 to 80 percent this year, so that's a huge uptick."

And he didn't want to predict a touchdown explosion, but consider that the league averaged 6.5 TD returns per season in the past 10 seasons compared to 14.6 per season from 2004-13. "I think there's going to be some opportunities for some big plays," he said.

Boyer has some strong options for returners, which could include WR Xavier Gipson, last year's main kick and punt returner as a rookie, veteran free agent RB Tarik Cohen, who still has his giddyup despite missing the past three seasons due to injuries, and fifth-round rookie RB Isaiah Davis, among others.

But the Jets' ST guru is studying all the other positions as well, blockers as well as tacklers.

"Where can you double-team? Can you do this, can you do that? Your backside cutoffs, your frontside pin blocks," Boyer ticked off. "Whatever you're working, all those concepts, you really don't know until we get into the games, so it is a big challenge."

Yet as uncharted as the territory is, it could also be a wide sea of opportunity for the Jets. Can they return to the productivity of the 2011 season of Joe McKnight, who led the NFL and set the franchise record with a 31.6-yard return average? Can they match the glory days of Mike Westhoff's KR units, which included Leon Washington, Brad Smith, Chad Morton, Justin Miller and McKnight and produced 16 TD returns in 12 seasons?

"I'm not surprised," Boyer said of the league's jumping into this kickoff ocean at least for the '24 season. "I think they want returns and they want field position, and I'm all for it. The more we can get these guys to do and the more that we can hopefully have an impact on the game, the better."

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