Commentary

Approaching a point of no returns?

Originally Published: March 21, 2011
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

Packers KickoffScott Boehm/Getty ImagesThe Packers' Mason Crosby is among the kickers who will be aided by moving kickoffs to the 35.

Special teams or special kickers?

That's the football debate that will heat up Monday and Tuesday in New Orleans as coaches, general managers and owners discuss a rule change that would move the kickoff from the 30- to the 35-yard line. The debate is whether this Bourbon Street discussion will make touchbacks too much of a "Big Easy" for kickers.

The answer is yes.

Let's go to the numbers. Last season, kickers made 70-yard kicks 36.5 percent of the time. Kicking from the 30, that meant 927 kickoffs sailed into the end zone. For the season, 416 were touchbacks. That doesn't sound bad.

But adding 5 yards to the starting point for kickoffs adds a whole new level of kickers who have the potential to get touchbacks, and that's where the problem occurs.

The 70-yard kickers such as Billy Cundiff of the Ravens, Michael Koenen of the Falcons, Pat McAfee of the Colts and Sebastian Janikowski of the Raiders will give their coaches the luxury of not worrying much about kickoff coverage. The extra 5 yards will make touchbacks a breeze for them.

Kicking from the 35, Mason Crosby of the Packers, Graham Gano of the Redskins and Neil Rackers of the Texans now will be in better range of getting touchbacks. Just going through the numbers of the top 16 kickers with 70-plus-yard legs, 48 percent of their kickoffs were touchbacks last season.

Add the 65-yard legs to the 70-yard boomers and that could increase the number of touchbacks from 416 to around 800, roughly 31 percent of the kickoffs.

The competition committee supports this proposal for safety reasons, and safety is important. The tradeoff is that touchbacks would be spotted at the 25 instead of the 20 and all wedges would be eliminated. (The three-man wedge was eliminated a year ago.)

Kickoff returns wouldn't vanish if this proposal passes, but if it does, don't expect to see as much of Josh Cribbs, Devin Hester, Leon Washington and others ripping up kickoff coverage units.

From the inbox

Q: Since the union has decertified and is currently not representing the players, why can't players cut their own deal with their team or, if they are a free agent, with any team period? Also, it seems like trades and signings and everything could continue -- just between each player, their agent and the teams? What am I missing?

Rick in Fairfax, Va.

A: The league has locked out the players, so no transactions can occur. If the union has the lockout lifted, the league could have the option of implementing a system similar to last year and deals could get done. That would be challenged in court, but the league could operate. For now, though, the only options for getting deals done are a settlement between both sides or for the league to implement a system. That system probably would have free agency after six years.

Q: LeGarrette Blount (undrafted), BenJarvus Green-Ellis (undrafted), Michael Turner (fifth round), Brandon Jacobs (fourth round), Peyton Hillis seventh round) and Terrell Davis (sixth round) are but a few examples of RBs that have enjoyed success without being an early-round draft pick. In your estimation, what position, historically, has been the easiest to find "diamonds in the rough" in later rounds?

David in Atlanta

A: Guards and safeties are two other positions for diamonds in the rough. Both positions are usually passed over during the first round. I think tight end is another diamond-in-the-rough position. Occasionally, you can get a wide receiver, particularly a slower one who can work out of the slot.

Q: Should the Vikings get a quarterback at this year's draft or take a chance with Joe Webb, or maybe even get a veteran quarterback out of free agency? And should they help out their OL or DL in the draft? What do you think would benefit the Vikings more?

Endy in Minneapolis

A: Quarterback is the biggest priority because they don't have a starter. It's debatable whether they have a good backup. Because they aren't going to be in a spot to get Blaine Gabbert and Jake Locker is going to be a project who will take time to develop, they need to go the veteran route. A trade for Kevin Kolb or Kyle Orton would probably be the smartest move. If that doesn't work, they might have to consider pushing for Matt Hasselbeck. I think offensive line should be their next priority. That line has struggled for the past two years.

Q: What do you think of Carolina picking A.J. Green? Steve Smith is getting older and doesn't want to be a No. 1. Having those two to deal with on the outside would take pressure off the running game and possibly see Jonathan Stewart play a full season without injuries.

John in California

A: The Panthers will look at A.J. Green this week and he's definitely a consideration. If they draft Green, they probably would trade Steve Smith. Overall, though, I think they are going to draft a quarterback. As much as they like Jimmy Clausen, the organization realizes the value of having a franchise quarterback. I think they view Cam Newton as more of a potential franchise quarterback than Blaine Gabbert. That's why I'm starting to think Newton is going to be their pick, although I realize they are still trying to make up their minds.

Q: Assuming we get back to football at some point, why aren't any teams interested in Daunte Culpepper, Jeff Garcia and the like? These veteran QBs, while not being the long-term answer, would have been better for half the teams in the league than their current QBs. Why don't Daunte and Garcia get a chance to play any longer?

Andy in San Jose, Calif.

A: At this stage of their careers, Garcia and Culpepper are considered last-ditch options, although they still should be on the radars of some teams. Garcia is 41, so his hopes of landing a job aren't that good. Culpepper still has a good arm, so he has a chance. I tend to agree with you that too many teams had young, inexperienced backups that left them in bad spots once their starting quarterback suffered an injury.

Q: I have heard a lot about players losing out on valuable offseason work with the lockout and that young quarterbacks (i.e. Josh Freeman, Matthew Stafford, Tim Tebow) will actually regress during this time period. What's your evaluation of that, and do you think established quarterbacks like Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning, and Philip Rivers will be affected based on the fact that they all tend to know and understand their respective offenses better and don't typically need to have a playbook in front of them to practice with teammates?

Mark in Milwaukee

A: The veteran quarterbacks such as Rodgers, Manning, Tom Brady and Rivers will have huge advantages in being able to put their offenses together compared with the young quarterbacks if the labor problems last until summer.

Manning, for example, usually starts putting together the pieces for his offense in May. A young quarterback such as Tebow will really regress if he doesn't get constant coaching. I think Freeman could be fine, but he needs the help of the coaches to get his young receivers and runners working with him the right way. May is the key time for things to start.

Q: I'm a huge Bengals fan living in Chicago, and would like to know: Do you think Dan LeFevour, currently the Bengals' third QB option, should be the one lining up behind center at the start of training camp, and should the Bengals bring in a veteran (assuming Carson Palmer gets shipped elsewhere) to at least have some competition in camp? LeFevour is a proven winner at the college level and could be a great fit for Jay Gruden's West Coast offense. What do you think?

Reed in Chicago

A: I think the best-case scenario for LeFevour is to be a backup. It's pretty evident the Bengals are eyeing Christian Ponder as a draftable option in the second round. They might have to go out and sign or trade for a veteran. Palmer won't be traded, but I do think he is going to sit out this season. It would be a lot to ask of LeFevour to rush him into a starting role.

Q: What are all of the draft gurus looking at with Blaine Gabbert? This guy's legend has become a lot bigger than either his pro potential or his accomplishments merit. He played in a pass-happy spread offense and only threw 16 TDs in 2010 in a Big 12 Conference that was really weak defensively. He is allegedly so much more accurate than Cam Newton, but he threw for a lower percentage in 2010 than Newton did and his yards per completion was lower. Gabbert also choked in the bowl game Mizzou lost by throwing a pick-six in the fourth quarter and Newton willed his team to an undefeated record.

Eric in Raleigh, N.C.

A: Gabbert probably is going to be the second quarterback drafted. He won't go any lower than the eighth pick and could go as high as No. 3. Cam Newton will go before him. The debate is whether Gabbert is going to be an elite quarterback. He is looked at more as a Mark Sanchez type of quarterback than a Sam Bradford or Matt Ryan. I think he will be a winning quarterback like Sanchez. He's worthy of the high choice, but he might not be one of the top quarterbacks.

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer