NFL’s New Kickoff Rule: Explaining the Hybrid Kickoff and Onside Kick Changes Coming in 2024

NFL owners approved a new hybrid kickoff rule that will go into effect for the 2024 season. Here's everything fans need to know about the change.

NFL kickoffs will look much different next season. This offseason, league owners voted to approve a new hybrid kickoff rule that will go into effect for the 2024 campaign. The change is designed to increase the relevance of NFL kickoffs while prioritizing player safety.

NFL Owners Approve New Hybrid Kickoff Rule

Franchise owners voted 29-3 in favor of the new rule. The Las Vegas Raiders, Green Bay Packers, and San Francisco 49ers were the only teams that voted against the proposal.

However, the change might not be permanent. The rule will be in place on a one-year trial basis and be subject to renewal next offseason.

Still, this is a big change. One that will force fans and, especially, players and coaches to adjust. But what is the new kickoff rule, and how will it work?

Details of NFL’s New Hybrid Kickoff Rule

Last season, with new rules in place, the NFL saw returns on just 22% of kickoffs. While the league arguably achieved its goal of increasing safety on one of football’s most dangerous plays, the byproduct was the reduction of the kickoff to a play that many considered ceremonial and pointless.

So, the NFL turned toward the XFL for inspiration on how to fix kickoffs, and the results are fascinating. Here are the key details:

  • The kicker will kick off from the 35-yard line.
  • The other 10 members of the kickoff team will line up at the returning team’s 40-yard line.
  • At least nine members of the receiving team will line up five yards away at the 35-yard line.
  • Up to two returners will line up in the “landing zone” (between the 20-yard line and the goal line).
  • Only the kicker and returners can move before the ball hits the ground or the returner within the landing zone.
  • The ball will be placed at the 30-yard line if it lands in the end zone.
  • Any kick that hits the landing zone must be returned.
  • If the ball lands inside the 20-yard line and rolls into the end zone, it must be returned or downed (which results in the ball being placed at the 20-yard line).
  • If a kick fails to reach the landing zone or goes out of bounds, the receiving team takes possession at its 40-yard line.
  • No fair catches are allowed.

The hope is the new rule will decrease violent, high-speed collisions by forcing players to line up closely and remain still until the return begins. Additionally, kickers likely will try to avoid kicking the ball into the end zone, resulting in an uptick in returns.

The NFL recently shared this video breaking down the new kickoff rule:

And here’s a video of what kickoffs look like in the XFL:

Using this hybrid kickoff rule, the XFL saw returns on 97% of kickoffs in 2023, so NFL fans can expect to see a lot of returns this season.

Last season, the Packers’ Keisean Nixon led the NFL in kickoff returns with 30. New York Jets head coach Robert Saleh expects that number to be significantly higher in 2024.

“With the new kickoff rules and these kick returners, they’re going to touch the ball over 100 times a year, which is significant,” Saleh said. “At least that’s what we’re anticipating.”

But that’s not all. Onside kicks will change, too.

How Onside Kicks Will Change Under NFL’s New Kickoff Rule

The rule’s radical realignment of both teams created an obvious need to tweak onside-kick rules. After all, there wouldn’t be anyone near the kicker at the time of the onside kick.

Now, teams can use unbalanced formations for onside kicks: Six players on one side of the kicker, with four on the other. This should dramatically raise the odds of recovery, which became extremely rare in recent seasons.

Under the new rules, onside kicks are only permitted in the fourth quarter. Also, teams now must declare an onside-kick attempt before the play begins. So, surprise onside kicks — like the one the New Orleans Saints executed in Super Bowl XLIV — will be prohibited.

Some won’t like that change, as surprise onside kicks were one of the more exciting plays in football. But the likely result of increased onside-kick conversations could be viewed as a net positive.

Teams Are Getting Creative With Their Personnel

Some teams are planning to have their stars return kicks rather than using specialists.

“It wouldn’t shock me if, shoot, every No. 1 receiver and every No. 1 running back in the league is raising their hands to return kicks Week 4,” Miami Dolphins head coach Mike McDaniel said recently.

The new rules are also forcing teams to get creative. The Kansas City Chiefs may have Justin Reid kick off rather than Harrison Butker so they can have an additional tackler on the field.

KEEP READING: John Harbaugh, Justin Tucker Weigh In on New Kickoff Rule

The Dolphins aren’t ruling anything out, including the possibility of putting offensive linemen or tight ends on their return team to improve blocking.

“Honestly, right now, we are looking at everything and anybody,” Dolphins special teams coordinator Danny Crossman told reporters. “We are not eliminating anyone when it comes to position groups that maybe weren’t part of that aspect over the last couple years.”

Again, all of this is subject to change next offseason. But, for at least the 2024 campaign, NFL kickoffs will be more interesting than ever before.

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