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Kicking rules tweaks may affect AFC West strategies

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Spotting touchbacks at the 25-yard line will likely have the greatest AFC West impact on the Oakland Raiders and Denver Broncos.

Oakland Raiders kicker Sebastian Janikowski may need to shorten some kickoffs in 2016.
Oakland Raiders kicker Sebastian Janikowski may need to shorten some kickoffs in 2016.
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The NFL owners recently approved a short list of rules changes and at least one will again affect the kicking game. Last season, the extra point spot was moved back to the 15-yard line. The Raiders and Broncos each missed one during the regular season. The Chargers and Chiefs each missed a pair.

Heading into the 2016 season, teams failing to return a kickoff will now be rewarded the 25-yard line, instead of the 20. Denver’s Brandon McManus posted the most touchbacks in the AFC West last season with 55, according to sportingcharts.com, which is not surprising given the thin Mile High air. Oakland’s Sebastian Janikowski nailed 44, for second in the West.

On the other side, Kansas City had the most kicks returned in the division at 46 for 1,137 yard and the fourth most in the league. The Raiders yielded the second fewest return yards in the division at 795 yards, behind the Broncos at 508 yards. Oakland also gained the most yards on kick returns in the NFL at 1,268 and had the highest division average at 23.9 yards per return. Those numbers may make Raiders opponents more inclined to surrender a touchback when possible.

The new 25-yard rule may run counter to previous efforts to reduce head injuries, such as the dismantling of the kickoff wedge. Coaches will now be pressed to decide whether or not they can tackle a kick-returner inside the 25 or have their big leg swing away. While the new mark certainly makes it advantageous for return men to take a knee, many kickers can drop that ball inside the five just as easily. The additional 5-yard reward may make teams more inclined to force returns and thus more high-speed collisions.

Only 10 teams in the league averaged 25 or more yards per return during the 2015 regular season according to pro-football-reference.com. That means 22 teams averaged fewer than 25 yards and three of those fell below 20.