Louis Rees-Zammit’s pursuit of an American Football career could be aided by a radical new rule change.

Days before the Wales international reportedly agreed to contract terms with the Kansas City Chiefs, the NFL approved a sweeping overhaul to its kick-off structure aimed at increasing returns while mitigating injury risk.

The new format, which was pioneered by the now-defunct XFL spring league in 2020, shifts the ten kick coverage players from their own 35-yard line to the opponent’s 40. The blockers on the kick return team must position themselves in a “setup zone” between their own 30- and 35-yard lines, and no one but the kicker and returner(s) is allowed to move until the ball lands in the “landing zone” between the goal line and the 20.

Any kick-off that fails to reach the landing zone or travels out the back of the end zone will incur a substantial field-position penalty, and “fair catches” — the equivalent of a mark in rugby — will not be permitted.

All of these tweaks are meant to reinvigorate a play that once ranked among the most exciting in football. Only 21% of all kick-offs during the 2023 season were returned, and teams averaged just 1.1 returns per game, the fewest in NFL history. Those numbers are expected to skyrocket this season.

Read moreRees-Zammit leaves rugby

For teams, that means placing greater value on talented kick-off returners than they have in recent years. For Rees-Zammit, it means more opportunities to showcase the skills that made him a dynamic playmaker in Wales’ back three: fielding kicks, spotting seams in the opposing defence and accelerating through the line.

The 23-year-old, who left his national side ahead of the Six Nations to join the NFL’s International Pathway Program, reportedly will practice at wide receiver and running back for Kansas City, but learning the nuances of those positions could take years. The odds of him seeing playing time at either spot for the reigning Super Bowl champions are slim.

The Rees-Zammit kick-off question

The learning curve for kick returners, however, isn’t nearly as steep. Rees-Zammit will need to adjust to having blockers in front of him and pads on his body, but the basics of that role are similar to what he has experienced thousands of times on the rugby pitch. Returning kicks for the Chiefs will be a chance for Rees-Zammit to utilise his athletic gifts and field vision without being overburdened by offensive scheme and route-running technique. It’s akin to an American Football convert quickly excelling in sevens rugby, which requires less tactical know-how than 15s.

The new kick-off rules also will make it more palatable for NFL teams to carry players who only contribute as kick returners. Previous rule changes had greatly diminished the importance of that position, and most clubs declined to carry a kick return specialist on their active roster.

Rees-Zammit will begin his NFL career on Kansas City’s 90-man roster, which must be trimmed to 53 players by the time the season begins in September. If the young Welshman does not make the cut after training camp and the preseason, the Chiefs can assign him to their practice squad, which would allow him to continue training with the likes of Patrick Mahomes and Travis Kelce. Each NFL team is granted one international player exemption on its practice squad, and those players can be elevated to the game day roster a maximum of three times per season.

Becoming ‘Rees-Zammit kick-off returner’ could aid his chances.

A total of five International Pathway players have appeared in NFL games, including Australian rugby league alum Jordan Mailata, who now starts at left tackle for the Philadelphia Eagles.

Could we see Rees-Zammit kick-off returns in big matches in the NFL? Let us know your thoughts at rugbyworldletters@futurenet.com or on social media. 

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