NFL draft: New kickoff return rules to boost special-teams players

Here’s the 10th and final story of our position-by-position NFL draft series. Today, we’ll look at the top special-team players.

The NFL’s adoption of the new kickoff-return rule will impact how players are evaluated for the coming draft, which is set for Thursday through Saturday.

Under the new rules, teams are expected to use multiple returners and a cornerback or a running back with return experience will be more valuable to teams.

“We used to do a lot of scouting that we really haven’t had to do over the last few years as the return game had kind of diminished,” NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah said. “But now, there are like OK, we are close on these two corners, but this one actually was a kickoff returner two or three years ago.”

The teams will then go back and watch the film or the returner and perhaps break the tie between players with the same or similar grades.

“That’s a little bonus to it, a little added value,” said Jeremiah, a former NFL scout with the Ravens. “I think it impacts the draft. Especially this year not knowing. … I think there are teams and decision-makers that want to be ahead of the curve a little bit ... that can be a difference-making play again. Some thing that we haven’t seen in terms of how this is set up. I’m fascinated to see it.”

Texas wide receiver Xavier Worthy also returned kickoffs and punts in college. He set the record for the best time in the 40-yard dash at the scouting combine with a 4.25.

He averaged 14.1 yards on punt returns and 16.5 on two kickoff returns.

Clemson running back Will Shipley, Texas A&M’s Ainias Smith and Penn State’s Daequan Hardy are other players who’ll benefit from the new kickoff-return rules.

“I think it’s going to separate a lot of ties between the players,” Jeremiah said. “It’s also going to be an easy sell for college teams with some of these premier young players that they have. You can convince them that you can add to your value by being a returner for us.”

South Carolina wide receiver Xavier Legette also is one of the kickoff returners in the draft. He had 29 kickoff returns for 767 yards (26.4 per return) and a touchdown over his career.

“It’s important to me because it’s any way to help the team win,” Legette said. “I don’t have any problem playing special teams. Even if I’m playing every rep on offense, I’m still going to go out there and play special teams. I did that this season.”

Legette also was the gunner on the coverage units for the Gamecocks.

In addition to the returners, several teams will be in the market for punters and kickers.

Iowa’s Tory Taylor, a native of Melbourne, Australia, is one of the top punters in the draft. The Hawkeyes have been offensively challenged in recent years, and that led to Taylor receiving a lot of work.

“I was fortunate, I don’t know whether it’s fortunate or unfortunate, from a personal standpoint, at Iowa obviously I had a lot of punts while I was there,” Taylor said. “I’d just say a high level of consistency, a high level of maturity. I think it’s really just that consistency of being able to perform in big games.”

He also had to punt in some bitter weather conditions.

“Every game is the same at the end of the day, but just being able to do it in the cooler climates with the wind and things like that, and a lot of the challenges that you face in the Midwest,” Taylor said. “I think what separates me from other people is my high level of consistency.”

In 2023, three punters were taken in the draft. The Patriots selected Michigan State’s Bryce Baringer (192nd overall) in the sixth round, the Bengals selected Michigan’s Brad Robbins (217th) in the sixth round and the Rams picked Wingate’s Ethan Evans (223rd) in the seventh round.

Stanford’s Joshua Karty is considered the top kicker in the draft. He has range up to 59 yards on his field goals and has a strong kickoff leg.

In the 2023 draft, three kickers were selected. The 49ers took Michigan’s Jake Moody (99th) in the third round, the Patriots selected Chad Ryland (112th) in the fourth round and the Packers took Auburn’s Anders Carlson (207th) in the sixth round.


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SPECIAL TEAMS -- NFL draft: New kickoff return rules to boost special-teams players | Top 10 special teamers


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SPECIAL TEAMS – Michigan’s Jake Moody hopes to kick way to NFL draft | Top STs

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