At the NFL's spring meeting last week, the league's ownership approved a handful of rules changes to the kickoff that are all noted here in a tweet from the NFL's Operations Department:
The Competition Committee was careful to consult with special teams coaches and players from around the league so that the changes maintain the spirit and character of the kickoff, while making the play safer. Michael Thomas, a Giants unrestricted free agent addition in the spring, was part of the process."
It's crazy that I was invited to be a part of that conversation at the league office," Thomas said. "They actually listened to me, and I had a voice representing the players and union that could contribute in creating some of those rules."
The changes were spurred by the fact that research showed kickoff plays were five times more likely to result in injuries than non-kickoff plays. There is no other play in the game where the majority of the players are initially lined up so far away from each other before the play begins. The result is high-speed collisions that cause far too many injuries.
"We've got to change the play to make it safer," Thomas said. "They're looking at injuries. I'm a little biased. There's a whole bunch of things we can change to make the game safer. You don't have to start with the kickoff, but if that's the way we're doing it, I think the play got a little safer."
The NFL tried to address the issue in the past by moving the touchback out to the 25-yard line and kicking off from the 40-yard line, but the needle didn't move on the injury front the way some anticipated. The new rules are specifically designed to bring players closer together before the ball is kicked, similar to punts, in order to reduce the impact of hits. The league also outlawed running starts for the kicking team, wedges and formational overloads that lead to dangerous situations for players.
The wedge had previously been reduced to at most two men, but now it has been eliminated completely.
Those positions will now be filled by different types of players, whose responsibilities and assignments will change. There are typically some unintended consequences when rules are adjusted, but Thomas doesn't think these changes will swing the advantage towards either the return or coverage teams.
"I don't think it is going to be harder for the coverage teams," Thomas said. "But I think there will be way more opportunities for big returns because guys will be taking way more chances to bring the ball out. With guys not having that five-yard running start, they think they can bring it out, but as a coverage guy, I think not having a wedge back there just made it a whole lot easier to make tackles. I think guys are going to make plays."
If the play becomes as safe as other football plays, an increase in the volume of returns won't be an issue. If Thomas' prediction is right, it might actually end up leading to more excitement for the fans.
"I know some people are saying it is going to make more returns, but that keeps the play exciting," Thomas said. "Guys are going to get a chance to make plays. There are going to be big plays on kickoffs and on kickoff returns."
A renewed importance of the kickoff return and kick coverage would be a boon for Thomas, someone who has made his living as a special teams player.
"That's how I got my first look in the league and I take pride in it," Thomas said. "A bunch of the guys that we brought in have the same mentality and we're hungry so I'm excited about it."
The Giants seem to have a renewed focus on special teams. They will have a new punter this season, and there is an open competition for the placekicker position. In addition to Thomas, the team also brought in accomplished special teamers like Teddy Williams, Cody Latimer and Kareem Martin. Saquon Barkley was one of the most dynamic return men in college football last year.
"It's very clear what they're thinking on special teams, and I'm excited to be a part of that," Thomas said. "I don't think having a low standard on special teams is going to be acceptable here and we want to be a team that will go out there, put in the work, learn and grow together and make people adjust to us. We're going to make people adjust to us and play at our level. We're going to set the tempo and I love it."
Photos from the Giants fifth OTA practice!