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New rules could affect outcomes

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Get ready to pay more attention to special teams and kickoff returners in handicapping the NFL.

There are several news rules this year with the most important being kickoffs moved from the 30 to the 35-yard line. This may not seem like much, but it could impact scoring meaning more games going under the total.

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Last year, approximately 16 percent of kickoffs resulted in a touchback. This season that figure could reach the 35-40 percent mark based on this rule change.

The average field position following a kickoff last year was the 26-yard line. So look for the average field position to be around the 21-yard line. Teams that started a possession at their own 20-yard line produced a touchdown less than 13 percent of the time last year.

There were 32 out of 51 kickoffs during the five Thursday preseason games that resulted in offensive possessions beginning inside the 20-yard line, according to research done by ESPN's John Clayton. That's a whopping 62 percent.

While I don't think the figure will be that high come the regular season, it will be interesting to see if teams carry a long-distance kickoff specialist if their regular field goal kicker isn't noted for his long kickoffs.

That's the case with Minnesota's Ryan Longwell. He's the ninth most accurate field goal kicker in NFL history at 83.4 percent. However, he's not strong on kickoffs.

Meanwhile some journeyman kickers, such as Baltimore's Billy Cundiff, produce long kickoffs. Their value goes up.

This rule change also benefits teams with strong kickoff returners such as Chicago with Devin Hester, Cleveland with Josh Cribbs and Seattle with Leon Washington.

Not all the new rules favor defense.

The defensive's advantage in the new kickoff rule could be offset by the league mandating a stronger emphasis on penalizing hits against defenseless offensive players.

Expect more 15-yard penalties, game ejections and even suspensions for such infractions as nailing a player in the head, hitting a runner whose forward progress has been stopped, making contact with a player using the helmet when leaving your feet and hitting a player who doesn't have the ball such as the quarterback after an interception, or a wide receiver on an uncatchable pass.

This could make some fierce, intimidating but penalty-prone defenses such as Baltimore's perhaps play a tad less aggressive.

The time for preseason is to assess these rule changes and gauge the quality of backups on teams. It's not necessarily to risk your bankroll on exhibitions in which a coach's main purpose may not even be to win the game, but rather look at certain players.

  
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