NFL

Change in kickoff rule could affect roster spots

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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP)

The NFL moved the kickoff spot up five yards to decrease injuries by increasing touchbacks. The change could have another effect - hurting the job prospects of special teams players.

Matthew Slater of the New England Patriots may be one of them.

His primary contributions since they drafted him in 2008 have been covering kicks and blocking for teammates returning them.

''My role on special teams is definitely going to be the same as it's always been,'' Slater said Tuesday. ''That's how I'm going to make football teams in this league, and I knew that coming into this league.''

But the importance of players covering kickoffs diminishes with fewer opportunities to do that. So with kickoffs coming from the 35-yard line instead of the 30 that could affect roster decisions.

''I think you've got to think about it,'' coach Bill Belichick said. ''If instead of covering 60 kickoffs in a year, you think you're only going to be covering 30, then is that coverage player as important?

''Or on the flip side of it, a return team guy. You're going to be returning 30 instead of 60.''

That would diminish the role of blockers and kickoff returners. Brandon Tate handled 41 of the opponents' 56 kickoffs that were returned last year, but Belichick said Tate, Julian Edelman and Taylor Price - all wide receivers - all can handle kickoffs and punts.

''As it was explained to me, what the league and the competition committee were trying to do is eliminate the kickoff returns, which I think they'll do,'' Belichick said. ''They'll eliminate a lot of them, particularly early in the season when the weather is less of a factor.''

He spent much of his 16-minute news conference on Tuesday discussing the kicking game. That was his main focus when he coached special teams from 1976 to 1982.

''When was the last time we've had a press conference that's gone into kickoff returns in such depth?'' the usually serious coach said with a grin. ''Hey, I could talk about kickoff returns all day, let me tell you that. That was my life for 10 years almost.''

In three years at UCLA, Slater didn't catch a single pass and ran just twice. But he returned 34 kickoffs, all in his final year, three for touchdowns.

Listed by the Patriots as a wide receiver, he has no receptions and one rush in three seasons. He returned 11 kickoffs in each of his first two, but none in 2010. So in training camp he's working at both wide receiver and defensive back, hoping to show versatility that could boost his usefulness.

''The first day I came, they gave me both (offensive and defensive) play books. I guess that was the extent of the conversation. So I figured I'd be doing both,'' he said, ''but I knew I was going to have to. They preach the more you can do around here. ... (And) I tried to buy into that as much as possible since I've been here.''

Slater plans to keep his same approach despite the change in the kickoff spot.

''You expect there to be more touchbacks, but as cover guys, we can't be thinking, `Oh, it's going to be a touchback.' We have to cover down,'' he said. ''I really don't think that rule is going to have too big of an impact, especially later in the season as it gets colder and the ball carries less.''

Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski doesn't expect to change his style either, not even to increase his hang time to give teammates, already starting five yards closer to the returner, more time to cover that player.

''I always try to hit it as high as I can. That's never an issue. I feel like I do a pretty good job of hang time,'' said Gostkowski, who kicked off from the 35-yard line in college. ''After kicking the ball out of bounds a couple of times, and Bill yelling at me, I just try to kick it as high as I can.''

He could try to have the ball come down between the 5-yard line and the goal line hoping returners wouldn't reach the 20.

But that could backfire.

''You can somewhat do that, but it's kind of a real rhythmical swing, like a golf swing,'' Gostkowski said. ''When you try to adjust, you're more prone to mishit it, so I try to do the same thing every time. I (do) make slight adjustments whether it's into the wind or something like that.''

His basic goal is simple - kick the ball as high and as far as he can.

That can be tough in a place like Gillette Stadium where kickers must deal with wind at their backs and in their faces and even crosswinds. Against certain top returners - like Devin Hester of the Chicago Bears and Leon Washington of the Seattle Seahawks - touchbacks are even more important.

The Patriots practice many kickoff scenarios. Players have specific assignments in covering kicks. Returners make reads when deciding where to run.

That stays the same even with the change in the kickoff spot.

''I've learned that that's a craft and there's a lot to it,'' Slater said. ''It's organized chaos. Even though it looks like we're just running down like wild men, it's a craft and I've tried to embrace that craft and get better at it.''

Tagged: Patriots, Stephen Gostkowski, Matthew Slater

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