Ravens tight end Mark Andrews probably never expected to become the face of an NFL tackling debate, culminating Monday with the league banning the “swivel” hip-drop tackle at the owners’ meeting in Orlando, Florida.

But change is constant in the league, and that goes for the rules and regulations, too. As the Ravens get up to speed on the league’s new tackling guidelines, coaches and officials will have to adjust to tweaks elsewhere. Here’s how four new changes could affect the Ravens.

XFL-style ‘hybrid’ kickoffs

Ravens coach John Harbaugh said Monday that he wanted kickoffs legislated “back into the game”; according to ESPN, just 21% of kickoffs were returned last season. But Harbaugh seemed less certain that the XFL-style “hybrid” approach the NFL adopted Tuesday was the right one.

Under the new league rules, the high-speed collisions that once made kickoffs so dangerous will be limited, while returns will be incentivized. Standard kicks will still be set up at a team’s 35-yard line, but everything else will look different. The 10 kick coverage players will line up at the opposing 40, with five on each side of the field. The return team will have at least nine blockers lined up in the “setup zone” between the 30- and 35-yard lines, with at least seven of those players touching the 35.

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Up to two returners will be allowed inside the 20. Only the kicker and two returners will be allowed to move until the ball hits the ground or is touched by a returner inside the 20. Any kick that reaches the end zone in the air can be returned, or the receiving team can opt for a touchback and possession at the 30. Any kick that reaches the end zone in the air and goes out of bounds or out of the end zone also will result in a touchback at the 30. If a ball hits a returner or the ground before the end zone and goes into the end zone, a touchback will be at the 20 or the kick can be returned. Any kick received in the field of play must be returned.

“Everybody wants to get returns back,” said Harbaugh, whose special teams units in Baltimore typically rank among the league’s best. “Everybody’s on the same page with that. How you go about doing that, there’s a lot of questions, because it’s a big change. I think there are just a lot of questions.”

With owners agreeing to a one-year trial period, the Ravens have the next five months to figure things out. They ranked third overall in special teams efficiency last season, according to FTN, bolstered by a sixth-place finish in kickoffs and a fifth-place finish in kick returns.

On kickoffs, kicker Justin Tucker’s importance should only grow. Of the Ravens’ 102 kickoffs last season — 98 of which Tucker booted — just 20 were returned. According to NFL competition committee chairman Rich McKay, an estimated 50% to 60% of kickoffs will be returned in 2024.

The challenge for Tucker will be calibrating his kick power. According to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, 86.7% of Tucker’s kickoffs last season reached the end zone, the 11th-highest rate among regular kickoff takers. But his ability to change the trajectory of his kicks, sacrificing distance for hangtime, has been a weapon at times, forcing opponents to return kickoffs from disadvantageous spots. With the field possession tax that teams pay for touchbacks, Tucker will need to be more scalpel than hammer.

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The real intrigue in Baltimore, though, lies in how the Ravens’ returns change. Eric Galko, the director of operations for the Shrine Bowl and part of the XFL team that helped develop the NFL’s new kickoff rules, tweeted Tuesday that the value of kickoff returners “will be less about top end speed and burst, and more about vision and reacting. In short, more ‘running back attacking the hole’-type will be more valuable than … ‘receivers navigating in the open field’ types.”

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Running back Justice Hill, who had a team-best 78-yard kickoff return last season, figures to be the favorite to replace wide receiver Devin Duvernay, who signed this offseason with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Hill’s averaged 23.7 yards per return over his three seasons as a returner, with one kickoff returned at least 46 yards every year. Speedy running back Keaton Mitchell, who’s still recovering from a torn ACL, is another likely candidate. Mitchell showed maybe the best acceleration of any Ravens skill player last season, and he has experience on kickoffs, with 12 returns over his college career.

But if blocking for kickoff returns starts to more closely resemble run-blocking schemes, with sophisticated pulls and opponent-tailored strategies, could the Ravens’ list of returner candidates include starters such as wide receiver Zay Flowers or — gasp! — running back Derrick Henry? Flowers did not return kicks in college, but he had eight carries for 56 yards last season and led the Ravens in yards after the catch (392) and yards after the catch over expected (80), according to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats.

Henry, meanwhile, hasn’t returned kicks since high school, which presents an obvious problem. Returners who can’t actually field punts and kickoffs under Harbaugh typically don’t play. But, if the Ravens want to maximize the value of a star whose rushing workload will probably fall in Baltimore, they might at least consider giving their unnaturally fast, strong and coordinated star the kind of takeoff lanes (and relatively safe conditions) that he could have only ever dreamed of.

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New trade deadline

The Ravens have been active trading partners under general manager Eric DeCosta, acquiring cornerback Marcus Peters, defensive end Yannick Ngakoue and inside linebacker Roquan Smith in recent years. Last season, they nearly landed Henry, too.

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Now the Ravens will have another week to look for business. Under a new rule, the 2024 trade deadline will be the Tuesday after Week 9, a timetable that should be welcomed in Baltimore. After the NFL’s Week 8 deadline came and went last year with no Ravens moves, Harbaugh said his preference was to have it set for later in the season.

“Why not?” he said. “It would be better for players. It is better for the players and the teams and for the fans. To me, it’s good for the game as long as it doesn’t compromise the fairness and the integrity. As far as I can tell, it’d be great.”

Emergency-quarterback flexibility

Josh Johnson opened last season as one of three quarterbacks on the Ravens’ 53-man roster and ended it as one of three quarterbacks on their 53-man roster, too. He never played, though. In most games, Johnson was designated the emergency quarterback, eligible to play only if starter Lamar Jackson and backup Tyler Huntley were hurt.

Under a new rule, the Ravens should have more flexibility at the position and on their roster. Teams can now elevate a quarterback from the practice squad and designate him as their emergency QB. That means the Ravens could keep just two quarterbacks on their 53-man roster next season — Jackson and, barring another addition, the 37-year-old Johnson — while not having to allocate a spot to a potential practice squad player like Malik Cunningham out of fear of injuries.

Changes to injured reserve

When the Ravens have lost contributors to injuries during training camp and the preseason, they’ve figured out ways to make the roster math work. Because players placed on injured reserve before the season have been subject to season-ending IR, the Ravens have had to keep injured players on their initial 53-man roster, only to move them to regular IR a day or two later.

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In recent years, vested veterans such as defensive lineman Brent Urban have been key to those roster-building efforts. Urban might not make the initial 53-man roster, for instance, squeezed out by injured players the Ravens need to keep, but there’s an understanding that his place on the roster is secure. Once the Ravens move players to IR, Urban and others with handshake agreements can rejoin the team.

Under a new rule, the NFL has streamlined this process somewhat. On the league’s cut-down day, teams can now place up to two players on injured reserve and designate them to return after sitting out at least four games. If a team needs to place more than two players on short-term injured reserve, however, more roster workarounds will be required.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this article.

Jonas Shaffer is a Ravens beat writer for The Baltimore Banner. He previously covered the Ravens for The Baltimore Sun. Shaffer graduated from the University of Maryland and grew up in Silver Spring.

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