Kick Returns May Soon Be Rendered Obsolete Under New Rule for 2023

Kick Returns
Aug 27, 2022; Denver, Colorado, USA; Minnesota Vikings running back Kene Nwangwu (26) during the second half against the Denver Broncos at Empower Field at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Over the past few years, the NFL has become much more health-conscious in their rule making. With all the research around concussions and the dangers of potentially developing CTE or other brain-related injuries, the league has done their best to limit hard collisions and shots to the head.

This week, the league implemented another new rule for 2023 in another attempt to lower risk of injury. Rules regarding kick returns have been changed once again, and now, teams will be able to fair-catch a short kickoff and have the ball be placed at the 25-yard-line. The rule was approved by NFL owners on Tuesday as reported by Tom Pelissero of NFL Network.

Jan 5, 2020; New Orleans, Louisiana, USA; New Orleans Saints running back Latavius Murray (28) before kickoff of a NFC Wild Card playoff football game against the Minnesota Vikings at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Derick Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

For example, if a kickoff goes to the 10-yard-line, and a returner opted to fair catch rather than attempt to return the kick, the ball will automatically go to their own 25 rather than be placed at their own 10. This does not yet apply to punts, however.

The NFL has cited higher concussion rates on kickoffs and punts as the main reasoning for this change, again per Pelissero. According to NFL executive Jeff Wilson, more rule changes could be on the way in future years as well.

Pelissero also stated in his tweet that special teams coordinators are ‘unanimously opposed’ to the change. This makes sense as much of special teams revolves around returning kicks and return coverage. Under this rule, teams are far less incentivized to bring kicks back, thus making the already limited role of special teamers even smaller moving forward.

This could be especially impactful to one player on the Minnesota Vikings roster as well: Kene Nwangwu. Going all the way back to his collegiate years at Iowa State, the running back has made a living off being an elite kick returner.

Questions Answered: Kene Nwangwu Health, Kicker Empowerment, Booth or Evans?
Nov 21, 2021; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings running back Kene Nwangwu. Mandatory Credit: Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports.

Nwangwu returned 92 kicks for the Cyclones over five years for an average of 26.8 yards per return, including a kick return TD. Over his two years in the NFL, he’s been an explosive return man for the Vikings as well, bringing back 53 kicks for an average of 28.3 yards per return, including 3 kick return TDs.

While the return man has been an explosive player at times, the Vikings are not nearly as incentivized to return these short kicks as they were over the first two years of his NFL career. Nwangwu has not been given a very large role in the offense to this point, either, accruing just 11 touches over the course of the 2022 season.

Dec 26, 2021; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings running back Kene Nwangwu. Mandatory Credit: Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports.

Considering the depth that they have at running back as well with Alexander Mattison and Ty Chandler likely handling the load of the offensive touches this season, this could impact whether or not the Vikings decide to keep Nwangwu on the roster for 2023.

The new rule has been agreed upon for a one-year trial, so the topic will be back once again in 2024.

Josh Frey is a Class of 2020 graduate of The College of Idaho and managing editor of When he’s not writing about the NFL, Josh enjoys running, gaming, or rooting for the Milwaukee Brewers and Bucks. Check out his Twitter account: @Freyed_Chicken.