Stephen Gostkowski

Can the Patriots use the new kickoff rules to their advantage?

Can the Patriots use the new kickoff rules to their advantage?

UPDATE: Changes to the kickoff were approved at the NFL Spring Meeting in Atlanta.

Change is coming for the kickoff. It's just a matter of time now.

In the name of player safety, several proposed rule changes for the kickoff will be presented to NFL owners at next week's Spring League Meeting in Atlanta. In order for the rules changes to take hold, 24 of the 32 owners will have to approve.

The proposals have been met with plenty of public support. Special teams coaches are intrigued by the new rules. Media invested in the play, in particular, 14-year NFL veteran Jay Feely, are on board. Even though the changes could drastically change the look of the kickoff, they may save the play by making it safer. The alternative might've been eliminating it altogether.

Patriots special teams ace and captain Matthew Slater was asked about the potential for the play's elimination earlier this offseason, back in April.

"I think you take away this play from football [and] you’re changing the fabric of the game," he said. "I think this play is part of the fabric of the game. It really makes me ask the question ‘Where do you go from here? What will happen next?’, and I don’t know the answer to that. I don’t know. But I look at a number of plays. I look at a goal-line stand. I look at a third-and-1; think about the collisions that are happening there. Those may be deemed unsafe by some people. 

"If you [eliminate kickoffs], what’s next? What happens? The reality is this is football. This is a contact sport. This is a violent sport, and all of us that are playing the game understand that. There are inherent risks that come along with playing the game. If you’re not OK with those risks, I respect that, and maybe you should think about doing something else. But if we feel like we need to take away this play from the game to make the game safer, well then what does that stop?"

With next week's proposals, the Competition Committee in conjunction with special teams coaches may have found a happy medium. Slater and others don't have to be worried about the play being erased just yet. 

But the kickoff will be different. Here's a tweet from NFL Vice President of Football Communications explaining the proposed changes. 

Let's take a quick look at not only how the proposed changes will change the play, but how it will change the play for the Patriots... 

DONE WITH POP-UP KICKS?


The Patriots have benefitted from having a kicker in Stephen Gostkowski who's adept at kicking the ball high and placing it near an opponent's goal line to force a return. Combined with great speed on New England's coverage unit, the Patriots have been one of the best in football in terms of pinning opponents inside their own 25-yard line. Last year, the Patriots were tops in the league in terms of average opponent starting field position. But if the proposal to have kickoff coverage players line up just one yard behind the ball prior to the kick passes...that would eliminate the running start for the coverage team, which would make it harder for players to get down the field and pin return men deep in their own territory on those high kicks. As a result, the Patriots may move away from using those pop-up kicks as frequently as they do. 

But on the flip side, when returning, the Patriots could benefit in a big way. With teams unable to get a running start when they kick off, that'll make kickoff returns more wide open. That might mean more space for one of the league's top return men, Cordarrelle Patterson, when he has an opportunity for a return. Patterson has 153 career kick returns and has averaged 30.2 yards per return. He's taken five back for touchdowns. 

WEDGE PROPOSAL COULD ALTER ROSTERS


Wedge blocks are relatively violent. Not only because they entail a two-on-one matchup, but because kick coverage units could employ wedge-busters to break up the two-man wall. That led to big collisions and injuries. Under the proposed rule changes, those wedge blocks deep down the field would be illegal. With only three players allowed to align deep on the kick-return unit, with the elimination of the running start from coverage units, and with a ban on blocks in the restricted area prior to the ball hitting the ground or being touched, the kickoff is going to look a little more like a punt. More one-on-one blocks, fewer double-teams and trap-blocks, leading to fewer high-impact collisions. 

For teams looking to take advantage of the more wide-open nature of the play, including the Patriots, this could have a very real impact on how rosters are built. Faster players vying for a back-end-of-the-roster spot could have an advantage over bigger ones. On the back end of return units, teams will need players who can cover a great deal of ground. And if wedge blocks are gone, the importance of having more imposing, but less mobile, blockers will be mitigated. Teams could lean toward the use of more linebackers and corners in the return game rather than some of the bigger offensive and defensive linemen who sometimes line up to clear space returners. 

ALIGNMENT PROPOSAL LIMITS SOME CREATIVITY


Because one proposal would require teams to have five players on either side of the kicker, that would limit some onside kick formations that call for one side with six players. Pre-kick motions are also illegal. This is something the Patriots have used in a variety of ways under Bill Belichick. They've sent some of their faster players -- whether it's Slater or Jonathan Jones or someone else -- in motion pre-kick to complicate opposing blocking assignments. Another portion of the rules change proposal requires at least two players outside the numbers and at least two players between the numbers and the hash marks. Again, this limits some pre-kick creativity for teams looking to manipulate the spacing between coverage players before the snap. 

MORE ACTION FOR EBNER...?


Patriots fans probably don't have the fondest memories of Nate Ebner's rugby-style mortar kick against the Eagles in 2015, but the proposal requiring eight return-team players to align in a 15-yard "set-up zone" closer to midfield might open up some space for kicking teams to get creative. A well-placed short kick - or a rugby boot - could find the soft spot in the return unit. This is why having fast players on the back end matters. A kick over the heads of the eight players in the "set-up zone" and in front of the three-man return group could cause ball-handling issues. In Super Bowl LII, the Patriots employed tight end Dwayne Allen and fullback James Develin as the wedge players in front of return man Dion Lewis. There may be some thought from special teams coordinators around the league to sub out bigger blockers with athletes who have more return experience.

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Which play will NFL ban next in its anti-Patriots mission?

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USA TODAY Sports Photo

Which play will NFL ban next in its anti-Patriots mission?

Hey, guess where the next Patriot-aimed NFL rule change will likely be? Did you say kickoffs? You didn't? I know. There are so many options. It's okay.

Be that as it may. During a Friday morning conference call with reporters, NFL Competition Committee chairman Rich McKay let it be known that the league is eyeballing the pooch kickoff that the Patriots employ so well and looking at whether the kickoff rule needs to be tweaked further.

MORE CURRAN

In 2016, in an effort to drive down the number of kickoff returns and -- ostensibly -- reduce injuries, the league voted to reward return teams by granting them the ball on the 25 as opposed to the 20 after a touchback.

Since field position matters, some teams -- the Patriots being the most high-profile -- avoided touchbacks by kicking moonballs short of the end zone and then hauling ass downfield to bring down returners inside the 25.

The 2017 numbers bear this out. In 2017, Stephen Gostkowski kicked off 99 times. There were 40 touchbacks, 58 returns and one onsides kick. The Eagles were the next closest team in terms of the number of kickoffs covered (47) . Twelve teams had fewer than half the Patriots' 58 returns covered. The Panthers, Niners and Raiders had 12, 15 and 15 respectively. That's the kind of thing that gets a big attaboy from New York.

The Patriots were third-best in the NFL in covering kickoffs, allowing 18.9 yards per return (behind Baltimore and Washington).

The Patriots -- and a few other teams -- clearly altered their strategy based on the new rule. In 2016, Gostkowski had touchbacks on 53 percent of his kickoffs. In 2017 it was down to 41. The Chargers, Bucs and Dolphins also had precipitous drops in the number of touchbacks.

In 2015, the Patriots had the fifth-most touchbacks on kickoffs (67.6 percent). And this is not what the Competition Committee wanted to see when it passed the rule, as McKay made clear.

"The reason we made [the rule change] for one year only was we were concerned about people as a rule beginning to pooch this ball -- kick it high and keep it in the field of play," said McKay, who is also President and CEO of the Atlanta Falcons. "We've seen some of that but it did not change the return percentages really so we're kinda happy with where that is."

Oh, but happy doesn't mean satisfied. The tinkering, adjusting and manipulating never ends, especially when the NFL's ultimate goal is achieving the almighty competitive balance, which New England has avoided for two decades.

The first portion of the conference call was devoted to saluting the fact anybody can win and anybody can suck AT ANY TIME with McKay noting, "One of our hallmarks is competitive balance. Eight of the 12 playoff teams weren't in the playoffs in 2016, that's the most since 2003. Two went worst to first in their divisions including the Super Bowl champions. In 14 of 15 seasons we've had a team go from last to first."

If competitive balance is a "hallmark" then the Patriots' relentless success would have to be . . . what? A stain? An embarrassment? Whatever the league would call it, it's beyond obvious that the Competition Committee (in concert with the league office) takes a hatchet to the New England redwood.

So what further tweak to kickoffs could be coming?

"College has a rule proposal in front of them that would allow you on a pooch kick to fair catch and the ball would come out to the 25," said McKay. "We'll look at that and see how it works for them. But our numbers are where they are. We think there's more work to be done on the kickoff and working on ways to make it safer and we're gonna do that.

McKay was available in advance of next week's owner's meetings in Orlando, in which a fleet of proposed rules changes and bylaws will be reviewed and voted on.

The most discussed is the "catch/no-catch" rule which always created debate and a level of outrage. But the strongest determination to change the ruling came after Steelers tight end Jesse James failed to control the ball after stretching for the goal line in a key regular-season game against the Patriots.

The rule was correctly applied by VP of Officiating Al Riveron -- James didn't establish himself as a runner, went to the ground and lost control of it in the end zone. But when the Steelers proceeded to pee down their legs on the next few plays and blow a chance to win, the outcome ensured the rule would be re-opened.

Who knows how motivated the league would have been if the Steelers won anyway. Or if the play happened in a Cardinals-Bears game in October.

Now, McKay says, that will change "Jesse James would be a touchdown," he stated. "We tried to simplify the rule, tried to make it a definable three-step process, two feet down or a body part and an act -- reaching, tucking, a number of things -- or if you had enough time and didn't do it but didn't have to."

MORE PATRIOTS

The first of many Patriots-inspired rules changes came in 2004 when -- after the physicality of the Patriots defensive backs in the 2003 AFC Championship unmoored the Colts and Peyton Manning -- Indianapolis president Bill Polian ramrodded through an edict to enforce illegal contact more closely.

After the Patriots 2014 Super Bowl season, the league moved to outlaw the formation trickery the Patriots used to great effect against the Ravens, gave greater empowerment to medical spotters to stop the game and remove an apparently injured player after Julian Edelman stumbled in the Super Bowl after a big hit from Kam Chancellor and then went on to help lead the Patriots comeback over Seattle, and came up with a crapload of cockamamie "protocols" to ensure footballs weren't tampered with before the game. The last was such a point of emphasis, the officials actually left the footballs and the air gauges at their Boston hotel prior to a 2016 playoff game between the Patriots and Chiefs.

Between all these instances AND the under-the-radar admission by NFL VP of Operations Troy Vincent that, by 2017 standards, the Super Bowl touchdown by Corey Clement shouldn't have counted, it's enough to make a franchise, fan base and observing media think there's a conspiracy.

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Patriots can't overlook needs on special teams

Patriots can't overlook needs on special teams

Before free agency kicks off, and before we dissect the top college prospects entering this year's draft, we're taking a look at the Patriots on a position-by-position basis to provide you with an offseason primer of sorts. We'll be analyzing how the Patriots performed in 2017 at the position in question, who's under contract, how badly the team needs to add talent to that area, and how exactly Bill Belichick might go about adding that talent. Today, we're looking at a spot where the Patriots are constantly looking to add: special teams. 

OTHER ENTRIES IN THE SERIES

HOW THEY PERFORMED


Lucky for us, and for anyone who cares about assessing special-teams performance, Rick Gosselin of the Talk of Fame Network (formerly of the Dallas Morning News) compiles kicking-game rankings every year. Gosselin calculates scores for every NFL team by ranking them in 22 special teams categories and assigning points to their standing. Fewer points the better. The Patriots, according to Gosselin, ranking third in the NFL this year (231.5 points), just behind the Chiefs (229.5) and a ways off from the runaway winner Rams (196.5). The Patriots were excellent in terms of covering kicks, achieving the best mark in football for opponent starting field position. They were the only team in the league that, on average, had teams starting drives behind their 25-yard line. The average starting field position for New England's offense, meanwhile, was middle of the road (18th in the NFL). Stephen Gostkowski was once again highly effective on kickoffs and on field goals, ranking fourth in the league in kicks made and kick percentage. He didn't miss from inside 40 yards, and he was perfect on kicks of 50 yards or more, including a career-high (in Mexico City) of 62 yards. The operation among Joe Cardona, Ryan Allen and Gostkowski was generally very good all season, but in the Super Bowl, they faltered on their first field goal attempt. Gostkowski then missed an extra point at the end of the first half. Allen finished the season strong, with several well-placed kicks inside the 20, but he finished the regular season with 23 kicks downed inside the 20 (tied for 26th in football) and his net per punt was 40.5 (22nd). 

WHO IS UNDER CONTRACT FOR 2018?
Gostkowski, Brandon Bolden, Allen, Cardona, Jordan Richards, Geneo Grissom, Nicholas Grigsby, Cyrus Jones, Jonathan Jones

WHO ISN'T?
Matthew Slater, Nate Ebner, Dion Lewis, Danny Amendola, Brandon King (restricted free agent), Marquis Flowers, Johnson Bademosi 

HOW DIRE IS THE NEED?


If you're looking purely at the three specialists here, the need isn't all that significant. People may want the Patriots to start sniffing around for a new kicker after Gostkowski hooked an extra point against the Eagles, but the reality is he's still one of the most accurate kickers in football, and his ability to place kickoffs is highly valued by the Patriots coaching staff. Cardona isn't going anywhere. Allen will also be back, in all likelihood. Belichick is a fan of some of the big-legged punters around the league, and Allen hasn't proven to be that kind of punter. But the fact that Allen was able to rebound from some eyebrow-raising punts early in the season to finish strong should have him back in 2018 without issue. The need here is in the kick-coverage and kick-returning areas. The Patriots are scheduled to have both of their returners (Amendola on punts and Lewis on kicks) hit free agency. Where will they end up? How much can Cyrus Jones take on after tearing his ACL last season? There are legitimate questions there. And when it comes to kick coverage, Belichick's two best players in that regard -- Slater and Ebner (coming off an ACL tear of his own) -- are slated to hit free agency. The Patriots have re-signed Bolden but other core kick-coverage players like Flowers, King and Bademosi are also scheduled to hit the market. Several could be back, but right now the core coverage units which served them so well in 2017 could have a significantly altered look next season. 

WHAT'S AVAILABLE IN FREE AGENCY?


Arguably the best non-kicking, non-punting special-teamer in the game last season, Miami's Michael Thomas, is slated to be an unrestricted free agent. Arizona's Justin Bethel - in the top-10 in the league in terms of special teams tackles every year since 2012, according to Pro Football Focus - is also set to hit the market. Rontez Miles of the Jets and Nick Dzubnar of the Chargers, both among the league leaders in special-teams tackles, are restricted free agents. At kicker, there's plenty of experience out there. The Raiders have parted ways with Sebastian Janikowski. Graham Gano, praised by Belichick in the regular season before New England's matchup with Carolina, is a free agent. Same goes for Atlanta's Matt Bryant, Seattle's Blair Walsh, Washington's Dustin Hopkins, Tennessee's Ryan Succop and Philly's Caleb Sturgis. Punters available include Dustin Colquitt of the Chiefs, Houston's Shane Lechler and Cincy's Kevin Huber. 

WHAT'S AVAILABLE IN THE DRAFT?


Glad you asked! We've got multiple draftable punters coming out of the college ranks this year. Michael Dickson of Texas is already getting some Day 2 (!) draft buzz for his combination of power and control. An Australian Rules Football guy who won the Ray Guy Award as the nation's top punter last season, Dickson would be just the second punter taken inside the first three rounds in the past 10 years if it happens. Alabama's JK Scott (6-foot-6) and Bowling Green's Joseph Davidson (6-7) could also hear their names called on draft weekend. 

HOW CAN THE PATRIOTS ADDRESS IT?


Davidson is left-footed and could pique Belichick's interest, but Allen's finish to the 2017 campaign should earn him the chance to pick up where he left off. The Patriots will surely be looking to bolster their kick-coverage and return units throughout the draft so don't discount a player's ability to perform in those phases when looking for potential Patriots fits. The quickest way to ensure immediate contributions here would be to re-sign players Slater, Amendola and King. Ebner could also be back following his ACL tear, which was relatively clean and uncomplicated. One late-season injury that could impact whether or not the Patriots make a move for a special-teamer in free agency was the one suffered by Jonathan Jones. It was of the non-contact variety on the Gillette Stadium turf. The severity of his injury is unclear, but if he won't be ready by the time the season begins, the Patriots would have to find someone who can handle his myriad duties in the kicking game. Bottom line: With everyone focused on the offensive and defensive holes on the Patriots roster that need to be addressed, there are others in the kicking game that will also require attention this offseason.

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