NFL Rule Changes: Has The Value Of Return Specialists Been Significantly Diminished?

With the NFL's announcement that kickoffs would be moved from the 30 yard line to the 35 yard line, a move made with the intention of increasing touchbacks and decreasing kickoff returns due to safety concerns, it's fair to wonder about how much the value of kick return specialists will diminish should the NFL ever return, resembling the old product we were used to. The number of kickoffs that ended up between the three yard line and three yards deep in the end zone seems high through pure personal recollection. It's hardly scientific, but on the surface, this five yard change seems like it could be a big deal.

To see how much the rule change will affect kickoffs, and therefore, the value of kickoff specialists, someone would have to go through every NFL kickoff from this season (or just 1000 of them, actually. Hi high school statistics teacher!) and determine how many of them just narrowly avoided being likely touchbacks. Of course, we'd have to set a parameter for "likely touchbacks," which we could figure out while we were taking the kickoff length sample. 

My hypothesis is that somewhere in the neighborhood of 1/2 of kickoffs fall between the three yard line and three yards deep in the end zone. With the rules changing, I would consider these likely to become touchbacks. Obviously, based on a variety of factors (intelligence of kick returner, ineptitude of kickoff coverage), not all of these will become touchbacks. After taking the samples for kickoff length and setting our parameter for likely touchbacks, we can then figure out what percentage of kickoffs that fall in our "likely touchbacks" parameter actually result in touchbacks. From there, you figure out the likely increase in touchbacks as a result of the rule change. Compare that to the rate of successful kick returns (a completely different set of parameters and sampling that we won't get into), and you can figure out how the value of kick return specialists might decrease.

My guess? This rule change makes kick return specialists incredibly less valuable. Like, by a factor of over 9000. If any NFL team actually wants to pay me to do this research, my e-mail address is on my profile page. My rates are reasonable!

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