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New onside kick rules could be up for vote at Annual League Meeting

NFL kickoffs could be in line for more tweaking this offseason, and now the same could be said for onside kicks.

A new kickoff rule crafted by NFL special teams coordinators would allow teams to attempt an onside kick only when trailing in the fourth quarter and require them to declare in advance, NFL Network Insider Tom Pelissero reported Sunday, per a source.

If the kickoff team declares they're attempting an onside kick, they potentially could be allowed to utilize an unbalanced (6x4) formation to raise odds of a recovery, Pelissero reported.

Just 5.2% of onside kicks were recovered in 2023, and there were just two surprise onside kicks due to run-ups being banned.

If approved, the new rules should raise both the frequency and success rate of onside kicks, raising chances of a late comeback, according to Pelissero, but with the setup zone now slated to be ahead of the ball, the element of surprise goes away because a different formation is required.

Pelissero adds that the language is still being finalized and owners must approve, per a source. That vote could take place during the Annual League Meeting from March 24-27.

Special teams coordinators from around the league met Saturday at the 2024 NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, and the new onside kick rule proposal is part of a larger concept of new kickoff rules that include the following, according to Pelissero:

  • Setup zone: The kickoff and return teams would line up on the receiving team's 40- and 35-yard lines, respectively, and not leave until the ball is touched or reaches the "target zone" (20-yard line to goal line).
  • Touchbacks: If the ball is kicked into the end zone, the receiving team gets it at the 35-yard line. If the ball is kicked into the target zone and rolls into the end zone, the receiving team possession would start at the 20-yard line.

Ahead of the 2023 season, NFL owners approved a one-year rule change that allowed returners to fair catch any kick behind their own 25-yard line and begin the ensuing possession on the 25. Only 22% of kickoffs were returned last season, and all 13 of the kickoffs in Super Bowl LVIII resulted in touchbacks.

The NFL tasked special teams coordinators with creating a rule that both increases return rates and delivers an acceptable injury rate. The hope for all parties is this new rule would make the kickoff game exciting again, eliminating the speed and space that might result in higher injury rates while incentivizing teams to put the ball in play.

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