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Clayton: NFL’s new kickoff rules are a positive for the Seahawks

Tyler Lockett led all Seahawks receivers in Week 5. (AP)

BUCKHEAD, Ga. – To no one’s surprise, NFL owners voted to pass rule changes that significantly changed kickoffs and kickoff returns and expanded the use of replay to correct an official mistake if he ejects a player incorrectly.

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The only slight change in the voting was that the kickoff changes will only be for this season. That should be a given. If concussions don’t drop on kickoff plays, there will be no kickoff returns or kickoffs in 2019. According to the NFL, concussions on kickoffs are five times more likely than on any other play in the game.

So how do the kickoff changes affect the Seahawks? Believe it or not, it affects them positively. Here’s why.

Under the new rules, coverage teams can no longer get a running start. Defenders must line up at the 34-yard line and begin their run once the kick sails the ball into the air. The advantage for the Seahawks is they have one of the best returners in football: Tyler Lockett.

Lockett, who has been to one Pro Bowl as a returner, has averaged 25.9 yards a kickoff return in his career. He’s averaged 31 returns per year and has had two returns for touchdowns in three years. Thanks to Lockett, the Seahawks were the third-best team in football as far as drive starts after a kickoff. Their average drive start is at the 26.8 yard line. Since Lockett was drafted by the Seahawks, they have been no worse than the fifth-best on drive starts.

The league average is 24.8, giving the Seahawks a full two-yard advantage. Remember, you get the ball at the 25 if there is a touchback.

Where the Seahawks have an advantage under the new rules is that there will be a new alignment of blockers. The receiving team must line up eight players in what is called the 15-yard setup zone. Only three players are allowed to be behind the 50 yard line, which is 15 yards away from the kickoff coverage team.

Watch for the Seahawks to consider the thought of using three returners. You could see Lockett, first-round pick Rashaad Penny and another returner as the three guys back. There, they would have the luxury of hitting the returners quicker and for more yards. Penny was a return beast at San Diego State, averaged 31.5 yards a return.

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By moving more players to the set up zone, the idea is to reduce the speed and space of their contracts with the coverage teams. The rule to have no running starts also slows down the speed and space of the coverage teams.

Less speed could lead to safer collisions.

Seahawks special teams coach Brian Schneider anticipates there could be more single blocking if the spacing is right. It also means smaller players on each side of the ball.

Last year the Seahawks used backup offensive linemen Matt Tobin and Jordan Roos on the kickoff return teams. No more. You won’t see offensive linemen or defensive linemen on kickoff. They will be replaced by defensive backs, linebackers, receivers or maybe tight ends.

If you are wondering what it will be like on kickoff returns for the Seahawks, it shouldn’t be too bad. Even though he’s now 40 and was hurt last year, Sebastian Janikowski is pretty good on kickoffs. Two years ago, the Raiders were the fourth best for the lowest drive starts after kickoffs. He usually has about 50 percent of his kicks returned.

One other aspect of the kickoff rule change is that it will be a touchback if the ball is not touched by the receiving team and it touches the ground in the end zone.

Safety is the mission with these changes.

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