How Packers’ Draft and New Kickoff Rules Intersect

Keisean Nixon will be under the microscope in 2024.

The Packers broke a lot of hearts when they passed on Iowa DB Cooper DeJean in the draft, mine included. So it was particularly intriguing when Brian Gutekunst chose a third safety, Oregon State’s Kitan Oladapo, in the fifth round.

Green Bay is no stranger to doubling and even tripling up at a single position to maximize the potential for hitting on at least one in the crapshoot that is the draft. Three wideouts last year and three OLs the year before are testimony to Gutekunst becoming one of the leading practitioners of the strategy. 

Safety was the most glaring need heading into the draft, with Xavier McKinney signed in free agency but little else behind him. With the additions of Javon Bullard from Georgia in the second round, Oregon’s Evan Williams in the fourth and then Oladapo, holdover safeties like Anthony Johnson Jr. and Benny Sapp saw their chances of making the 53 diminish.

But the impact will be felt beyond the remaking of the safety room. Bullard, Williams and Oladapo all have the capability to play nickel (slot) corner, and it’s likely the front office felt a need to upgrade there. Keisean Nixon won the nickel spot pretty much by default, and his performance was merely average, with a PFF grade of 59. 

Nixon’s main value, of course, is as the league’s leading kickoff returner, so his future would seem secure regardless of how things change in the secondary. It’s an interesting assumption, given the new kickoff rules, something that isn’t getting nearly enough attention because they call  for different skill sets in many places. 

To review: The kicker still boots from his own 35, but the kicking team lines up everyone else at the receiving team’s 40. The receiving team’s blockers can line up between their own 35 and 30, though seven of them have to be touching the 35. The receiving team is allowed two return men in the so-called landing zone between the goal line and the 20. 

There are other rules, but the bottom line is that kickoffs will no longer be the chaos of gunners and blockers flying at each other from opposite ends of the field. They will look more like running plays to start, but from a vertically elongated formation with a small gap between the trenches and the return men in shotgun 30 yards deep. Here’s a visualization:

Nixon and Tyreek Hill — among other return men in the league — have expressed excitement at the change, in part because it incentivizes returns over touchbacks. But let’s think about whether what makes them great under the current rules will serve them as well now. 

Nixon is no speed burner, but he has a knack for navigating the madness and anticipating the flow of what’s coming at him, finding open seams and bursting through them. Depending on how the coverage team plays under the new rules, there will likely be more congestion sooner. 

What this could mean — and I acknowledge the speculative nature here — is that yards after contact is going to emerge as an important metric for returners. Traditionally, return men have been DBs more often than not, and they don’t get measured for yards after contact. So figuring this out won’t come from stats. 

But one can imagine a world in which powerful yet quick running backs are looked to more frequently, for their ability to break tackles and drag people for extra yards, in addition to having the speed and moves to make people miss. Someone like, say, Deebo Samuel, who was one of the top yards after contact (per attempt) players in 2022 and 2023 (among those with at least 13 games played). Dontayvion Wicks also did pretty well last season, and Josh Jacobs has also scored highly.

Nixon should, and will, be the first option. And he’s not slight of frame, so he could easily be just as good or better than he’s been. I'm optimistic. A lot will also depend on how well Rich Bisaccia coaches his unit to adapt to the new realities, on both sides of kickoffs. 

But returning will be where Nixon needs to shine, given that it’s likely to be his primary toehold on the roster.

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Jonathan Krim grew up in New York but got hooked on the Packers — and on hating the Cowboys — watching the Ice Bowl as a young child.  He blames bouts of unhappiness in his late teens on Dan Devine. A journalist for several decades who now lives in California, he enjoys trafficking in obscure cultural references, lame dad jokes and occasionally preposterous takes. Jonathan is a Packers shareholder, and insists on kraut with his brats. You can follow Jonathan on twitter at @Jkrim.

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Comments (17)

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Guam's picture

May 07, 2024 at 03:12 pm

I think the biggest impact of the new rules will be to downgrade the value of "gunners". Lining up at the opponent's 40 and five yards away from blockers reduces the need for superior speed and instead emphasizes shedding blocks, lateral movement and tackling. I think we will see more linebackers and safeties on coverage teams and fewer burners.

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LambeauPlain's picture

May 08, 2024 at 09:13 am

I think so too. And the roles of good blocking TEs (Davis, Sims,), WRs (Heath), FBs (Pearson) to counter them on the receiving team, are going to be more important...especially for initial blocks in the landing zone.

It is going to take some getting used to, but it will be interesting viewing. The way the NFL has watered down KOs, it was either eliminate it altogether or find a way to keep the football play in the game with reduced injury risk.

Most important is how the STs are coached to execute the play and defend it. I see Nixon flourishing with the ball in his hands here, but also Lloyd...even Mr. YAC Jacobs.

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Leatherhead's picture

May 07, 2024 at 03:29 pm

IMO, the rules changes are going to have the net effect of increasing the number turnovers on kicks.

I think more kicks will be returned, as there isn't really any incentive to just bury it in the endzone. The best you could hope for would be to have the ball hit inside the 20 and roll into the endzone, or for the opponent to have trouble fielding . If you just kick it into the endzone, they start at the 30, which is still prefereable, IMO, to the turnovers and penalties. I wonder how many coaches will go out and attack this with the kick. Just kick a hard line drive into the landing zone . You're running down with 10 and they're blocking with 9. Unless every one of your guys gets blocked, the returner is going to find himself around his own 20 with three tacklers closing in. And that's assuming he fields the ball cleanly, which might not happen.

Turning it over on a kickoff is one of the biggest plays in football, and these rule changes make it more likely to happen. We might want to exploit that.

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LLCHESTY's picture

May 07, 2024 at 05:10 pm

Teams chances of scoring go up 10% for every ten yards closer to the end zone when teams are on their own side of the field. I doubt many coaches are going to be willing to just give teams a 10% higher chance of scoring but we'll see.

https://phdfootball.blogspot.com/2013/06/field-position-and-scoring.html...

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Leatherhead's picture

May 08, 2024 at 09:39 am

You seem to think this is a straight line correlation, but it isn't. And you don't seem to want to factor in the costs incurred in going for those extra few yards on a return.

When the Touchback moved from the 20 to the 25, did that raise scoring?(No. In 2015, the average scoring was 22.8. After the change, in 2016 it was 22.8. In 2017, scoring declined by a point.) How does that factor into your belief that the closer you start to the endzone, the more like you are to score? We moved every team 5 yards closer, several times a game, and scoring declined?

A few kickoffs get returned to the 40, and that's a good play. Some returns result in fumbles, which are usually game changers. Other result in injuries, which are bad, and in penalties, which are bad. The vast majority of kickoff returns really don't factor into the game.

I don't know how these new kickoff rules are going to change things. There'll obviously be more returns, which means there'll be more fumbles, more penalties, and more injuries. You think those extra 5 yards are worth it....I don't.

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LLCHESTY's picture

May 08, 2024 at 10:44 am

I showed the data, I can't help you understand it.

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Leatherhead's picture

May 08, 2024 at 11:06 am

Chesty, I know you don't understand things that aren't data. You're good at knowing this stuff,you just don't u nderstand the implications..

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LLCHESTY's picture

May 08, 2024 at 12:23 pm

I guess NFL coaches don't either because I doubt any of them will want teams starting at the 30 yard line. Maybe if their kickoff teams are complete crap and they're getting gauged every week.

I remember you telling me Amari Rodgers was going to WR4 over Doubs so I'm not sure I trust your understanding of football either.

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Leatherhead's picture

May 08, 2024 at 01:47 pm

How many of them wanted the line moved from the 20 to the 25? I mean, better for your offense, worse for your defense..

Amari Rodgers was #4, ahead of Doubs, when the season started. You were the one who said Doubs would catch 50 balls for 500 yards as a rookie, and he didn't. You want to take a guy who looks good in shorts and put him ahead of guys who've already played a year. Except in the case of Morgan and Walker, apparently.

You've also argued that 1)It's all about explosive plays, but 2) those extra 0.4 yards per rush, or the extra 3 yards on returns, are what wins ball games.

No. Here's what wins. Not turning it over, not beating yourself with penalties and missed assignments. Throwing TD passes. Kickoff and punt returns have a cost, you don't want to acknowledge that. Fine.

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LLCHESTY's picture

May 08, 2024 at 06:40 pm

I never said any numbers on Doubs, that's a lie. I said he would at least be the 4th most productive WR that year and he definitely was. I didn't say that because of how he looked in shorts, I said it because of how he looked against major college teams. I said he was a steal because I thought he would go late 2nd or 3rd round.

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LambeauPlain's picture

May 08, 2024 at 12:06 pm

In the parity entrenched NFL, teams employ every tool to gain an edge...and analytics are part of the tool box.

The kickoff had become more of a hammer in the box and KO teams were incentivized to boom it out, the return team to watch it sail out or take a fair catch.

Now the kickoff is a multi too. More strategy and planning for Mr. Rich.

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GregC's picture

May 07, 2024 at 04:08 pm

Something that's not mentioned in the video is that in the XFL these kickoff rules have NOT led to a lot of long returns or TDs. So this may turn out to be much ado about nothing. There will be a lot of returns, which is more fun than watching the ball sail into the end zone, and average field position after kickoffs will probably be a few yards better, which will help offenses a little but probably not enough to lead to a big increase in scoring. It could get interesting, though, if special teams coordinators think of ways to get long returns through use of different blocking schemes and players with specific body types and skillsets. I bet they will be putting more thought into it than the XFL coaches have.

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LLCHESTY's picture

May 07, 2024 at 05:17 pm

It may take awhile but I bet by mid season a couple teams will have an advantage returning kickoffs and then next season 90% of the league will ape them and it will evolve from there. Assuming the rules stay the same of course. What it also might do is make returners a draftable asset again, even if they're green at their positions on offense or defense. Like you said it should be a lot of fun.

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LambeauPlain's picture

May 08, 2024 at 09:21 am

Yeah, that's the NFL. Whatever exploitation, innovation that improves play execution, field position, and scores will be quickly attempted to be copied.

Eagles produced the effective 4th and short "scrum". Some teams want it "regulated". Kickoffs will likely see more tinkering from the League.

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EricTorkelson's picture

May 08, 2024 at 06:24 am

Receiving teams may have to put 3 or more returners in the landing zone... This should make kick offs fun again.. It may help GB because for the last few painful years we never had a kicker who could kick the ball out of the endzone.

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EricTorkelson's picture

May 08, 2024 at 06:27 am

P.S anyone remember the old days when after kicking the ball off the Bears would send in two players to beat the crap out of Chester Marcol....Ha Ha

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Leatherhead's picture

May 08, 2024 at 04:48 pm

They are only permitted two returners inside the 20. That's why I'm thinking hard line drives that land inside the 20.

Still and all, I'd probably be inclined to just kick it into the endzone and put my defense....my very good defense....on the field at the 30.

I'd suspect people will try to kick line drives down inside the 20.

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