Kickoff rule changes threaten Ameer Abdullah’s role with the Detroit Lions

DETROIT, MI - OCTOBER 08: Running back Ameer Abdullah #21 picks up yardage against the Carolina Panthers during the first quarter at Ford Field on October 8, 2017 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
DETROIT, MI - OCTOBER 08: Running back Ameer Abdullah #21 picks up yardage against the Carolina Panthers during the first quarter at Ford Field on October 8, 2017 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images) /

Ameer Abdullah‘s best chance to stick with the Detroit Lions in 2018 is as the kick returner. New rules passed by the NFL may lessen the importance of that role.

The NFL has further amended it’s kickoff rules. There are three major changes to the rule. Players from the kicking team no longer get as long a running start. Rather than five yards off the ball, they must now line up within a yard. They must line up five to each side of the ball at all times as well. On the surface that looks like an opportunity to get better kick returns, but the NFL also changed the rules governing the return team.

Eight players on the return team must now be lined up between their 40-45 yard line. That leaves only two blockers and the kick returner inside the 40-yard line. Players will be forced to retreat before turning around to set up conventional kick return lanes. Additionally, only the two players lined up back with the kick returner are allowed to double team a player on the coverage team. The wedge that has typically started kick returns has been completely eliminated.

The reason that this threatens Ameer Abdullah‘s roster spot with the Detroit Lions, is that his best chance to make an impact for the 2018 Detroit Lions was as the primary kick returner. This change to the rules is most impactful to that position. No player on the return team needs to touch the ball for a touchback if the ball hits the ground in the end zone. The whistle immediately goes, the play is dead, and the ball is set at the 25-yard line. Previously the team needed to field the ball and take a knee for the touchback to be initiated.

The smart money was already on never returning a ball kicked into the end zone. NFL kick returners, even the best ones, never average a high enough return to grant the team a 26-34 yard return consistently. On a long enough timeline, the smart play was always to take the touchback. Now the smart play is to line the kick returner up on the one-yard line and tell him not to even play the ball if he has to step back to do it.

This has been common practice for punt returners for a long time. They line up on the five-yard line and are told not to step back because a ball that gets behind them will most likely roll into the end zone for a touchback. Their likelihood of returning a punt from inside the five-yard line to the twenty-yard line is minimal. Of course, the difference between the two is that if the punting team recovers the ball, the return team still keeps possession. On a kickoff, the kicking team gets the ball if they recover it. Because of that, I expect the criteria for just letting the ball hit the ground to be a bit tighter.

Alternatively, teams may line up their returner in the end zone as they used to. They will likely only actually field the kick when they are forced to. Always lining up as though they are going to return the kick will keep the kicking team on their toes. In 2018 teams may not adopt a drastic change in formation. The rule will be looked at again in 2019. If this rule sticks, however, it will likely kill the kickoff return as we know it. That is a very bad thing for Ameer Abdullah‘s prospects.

Abdullah currently sits behind LeGarrette Blount and rookie Kerryon Johnson on the depth chart running the ball. As a receiving back, he sits behind Theo Riddick. The Lions drafted a fullback in April. Abdullah doesn’t do anything on special teams other than return kickoffs. The fourth running back on the depth chart needs to play more of a special teams role than that. As the percentage of offensive plays dedicated to the running game drops league-wide, it becomes less likely that any team will keep six running backs on their active roster.

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Blount and Johnson took the first-team reps on offense at Thursday’s OTA practice. Abdullah took reps as a punt returner but Jamal Agnew was an All-Pro at that spot for the team in 2017. It is difficult to imagine him losing that job. This rule change could end Abdullah’s time with the Lions.