One of the significant rule changes this season is pushing the kickoff from the 30-yard line up to the 35-yard line. The move was instituted to improve safety on kickoffs where players are barreling down into each other and break-neck speeds. By moving the kickoff five yards forward, it increases the opportunity for touchbacks, thus removing a certain number of big hits.
I was looking over the 49ers performance last Friday and took some time to focus on Kendall Hunter, who operated as the primary kickoff return man all evening. Hunter handled four kickoffs, holding two for touchbacks and returning two more for 40 total yards. Hunter was antsy to make some plays as the other deep man had to make sure and keep him from coming out on both touchbacks.
Hunter struggled a bit with his returns, but as he (and others) get used to the deep kicks, I'm wondering how limited returns will be in 2011? In 2010, there were 100 total touchbacks. Through one week of the 2011 preseason, there are 43 total touchbacks. Both of Kendall Hunter's returns probably should have been touchbacks as well, but even without mistaken returns, that's a fairly large number. It's also worth noting, the Chicago Bears actually kicked off from the 30-yard line twice before the NFL called and told them to stick with the 35-yard line.
Will teams be less likely to invest much in return guys with this change? It's only been one week so I suppose there could be some changes in the numbers, but I don't really see that happening with the physical change in the starting yard marker. It could have a decent effect on a team's roster strategy each year, but I'm not all that sure what kind of long-term impact we're talking about.