13 NFL draft prospects who could impact new kickoff rule

Xavier Legette's NFL draft profile (0:53)

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When NFL owners voted to change the rules on kickoff returns, they might have also tweaked the 2024 draft landscape.

The one-year trial, which the league will revisit after 2024, offers the opportunity for returners to get loose. Kickers will still be at their own 35-yard line, but the other 10 players in the coverage unit will line up at the receiving team's 40-yard line. The receiving team will have at least nine players lined up between its own 30 and 35. Up to two returners can line up anywhere between the receiving team's 20 and the goal line. Touchbacks will go to the 30, taking away the motivation for kickers to send most kickoffs out of the end zone.

Coverage players and blockers cannot move until the kick lands or is touched by one of the two returners. So the prospect of a returner quickly finding a crease and moving into the open field is increased, and the players who can do that in this draft might have found another way to make a roster.

It could force teams to have an eye toward an impact returner as the draft unfolds, even projecting some into the role if they didn't do it much in college. Here are some of the prospects in this year's draft to know:

Lideatrick Griffin, WR, Mississippi State

A wide receiver with Day 3 traction on some draft boards, he set the school's single-game receiving record with 256 yards against South Carolina last season. Griffin ran a 4.43 40-yard dash at the scouting combine, so he has the speed teams want in a potential returner. He averaged 30.4 yards per kickoff return over his four seasons with a 100-yard touchdown return in 2021 and a 92-yard score in 2022.

Number to know: He led the nation in kickoff return average (30.8 yards) in 2022. It was the second-best single-season mark in SEC history.

Ainias Smith, WR, Texas A&M

Smith was used at running back, slot receiver and returner in his five seasons with the Aggies. He did not work out at the scouting combine because of a left tibia injury, but he ran a 4.56 40-yard dash at the Aggies' pro day last month. Some teams think he could sneak into Day 2 of the draft because of his versatility. At the combine, Smith said he thinks many teams see him as a slot receiver. He had two punt returns for touchdowns in his career and was a first-team All SEC punt returner in 2021.

Number to know: Smith scored touchdowns receiving (19), rushing (four) and on punt returns (two) in his career -- one for every 13.4 touches.

Keilan Robinson, RB, Texas

After transferring from Alabama, Robinson played three seasons with the Longhorns. Undersized at 5-foot-8 3/8 inches and 191 pounds with a limited résumé in the Texas offense, teams still value his agility as well as his potential impact in the passing game. But an NFL roster spot may have to come in the return game. He had just 82 carries and 35 receptions over three seasons. But he averaged 25.2 and 22.5 yards per kickoff return, respectively, in 2022 and 2023, with a 95-yard touchdown return this past season.

Number to know: Robinson finished his career eighth in school history with 24.2 average yards per kickoff return and ninth in school history with 897 kickoff return yards.

Daequan Hardy, CB, Penn State

Hardy was one of the fastest players timed at the scouting combine with a 4.38 40 to go with a 42.5-inch vertical jump, so his explosiveness is enticing to special teams coaches. He had just three kickoff returns over five seasons for the Nittany Lions but flashed the kind of elusiveness teams want in a returner. In Hardy's only season as the team's punt returner in 2023, he averaged 14.6 yards per return and became one of five players in school history to have two punt returns for touchdowns in the same season.

Number to know: Both of Hardy's touchdown returns came in the Nittany Lions' win over Massachusetts on Oct. 14, making him the only player in school history with two punt return scores in the same game.

Xavier Worthy, WR, Texas

Worthy returned two kickoffs in three seasons for the Longhorns -- both in 2021 -- but as the fastest player in this draft, he also has some special teams coaches dreaming of seeing him breaking through the line of defenders on a kickoff. Worthy broke the combine record in the 40 with a 4.21. He may be the best punt returner in the draft, having averaged 16.9 yards per punt return with a touchdown this past season. His career punt return average (14.5) and his 16.9 average this past season both rank second in school history.

Number to know: Worthy scored 28 touchdowns in 39 career games.

Xavier Legette, WR, South Carolina

Legette may be the most physically imposing potential returner in this draft. At 6-1, 221 pounds, he ran a 4.39 40 at the combine and consistently showed toughness as a runner with plenty of yards after the catch. His best year as a kickoff returner was 2022, when he averaged 29.4 yards per return with a touchdown. He averaged 21.3 yards per return in 2023. Evaluators see Legette as an ascending player -- 2023 was his first season with more than 30 targets, and he went on to lead the team in receptions (71) and receiving yards (1,255).

Number to know: His 29.4-yard kickoff return average in 2022 is a school record. The last two South Carolina players to return kickoffs for touchdowns are Legette and Deebo Samuel (2018).

Malik Washington, WR, Virginia

After four years at Northwestern, Washington was a high-volume player on offense in his only season with the Cavaliers in 2023, with 110 receptions for 1,426 yards and 10 touchdowns in 12 games. His year at Virginia also marked the only time he returned kickoffs in his college career, and while teams see him as a slot receiver, they also see potential in the return game. He averaged 19.5 yards on 14 kickoff returns.

Number to know: His 10 100-yard receiving games in 2023 broke the school's single-season and career records.

Tyrone Tracy Jr., RB, Purdue

Tracy, after four years at Iowa and two at Purdue, will be one of the more experienced players in the draft. A former wide receiver, he was also a full-time running back for the Boilermakers in 2023. But his elusiveness and vision with the ball in his hands (6.3 yards per carry in '23 was the best in school history) will get him plenty of looks as a returner. He took his third kickoff return at Purdue -- the second of the 2023 season -- 98 yards for a touchdown.

Number to know: In his six years combined at Iowa and Purdue, Tracy averaged 8.3 yards per touch on offense.

Will Shipley, RB, Clemson

As a running back, Shipley was consistently decisive and quick to reach his top speed, traits evaluators like to see in potential kick returners. His background as a multisport athlete (lacrosse and track) is evident in the flexibility of his movements. Once he has the ball, his cuts are sharp and he forced a bevy of missed tackles. As a kickoff returner he averaged more than 27 yards per return in two of his three seasons, including 28.6 this past season.

Number to know: In 36 games, Shipley scored 34 touchdowns -- 31 rushing, two receiving and one passing.

Isaac Guerendo, RB, Louisville

He played one year at Louisville after four seasons at Wisconsin. Similar to Legette, Guerendo's imposing size-speed combination makes him an intriguing option as a returner in the new format. He was measured at 6-foot, 221 pounds at the combine and ran an electronically timed 4.33 40-yard dash. He returned 11 kickoffs this past season for the Cardinals, with his longest going 48 yards. He returned one kickoff as a freshman at Wisconsin for 49 yards in 2019, and as the Badgers' full-time kickoff returner in 2022, he averaged 23.9 yards per return.

Number to know: Guerendo averaged over 6 yards per touch on offense in each of the past three seasons (6.6, 6.2 and 6.8).

Kris Abrams-Draine, CB, Missouri

Projected as a Day 2 pick on defense, Abrams-Draine was a first-team All-SEC selection this past season with 50 tackles and four interceptions. After being the Tigers' front-line returner in 2021 with 22.4 yards per return (including a 100-yard touchdown return), he wasn't asked to do it much over the past two years (six returns in 2022 and two in 2023). But given that he arrived at Missouri as a wide receiver and switched to defensive back in his second year, he has the profile of a player who will get a long look as a returner.

Number to know: Abrams-Draine led the Tigers in pass breakups in all three of his seasons on defense, with 34 in 38 games.

Jaelen Gill, WR, Fresno State

Fresno State was Gill's third stop after Ohio State and Boston College. In a packed wide receiver class as a non-combine player, Gill's work as a returner may be his way to compete for a roster spot. He averaged 21.2 yards per kickoff return in 2022 at Boston College and 21.1 in 2023 at Fresno State. He also returned punts in four combined seasons at Boston College and Fresno State.

Number to know: Gill completed two passes in 2023, and both went for touchdowns.

Kenny Logan Jr., S, Kansas

Logan was a high-output defender in his five seasons at Kansas. He had three seasons with at least 95 tackles (two with more than 100) and had five forced fumbles in his career. He also returned kickoffs in all five of his seasons, with a touchdown as a sophomore (2020) and a career-best 27.9-yard kickoff return average in 2021. Given that some scouts have concerns about his speed -- he was not a combine invitee and ran a 4.68 40-yard dash at the Jayhawks' pro day -- special teams may be the best way for him to get his foot in the door given most evaluators project him as an undrafted free agent.

Number to know: Logan finished among the top 10 in the Big 12 in kickoff return yardage in four of his five seasons and was in the top four in kickoff return average in two of those years.