NFL continues safety focus, proposes kickoff changes


When play resumes, the NFL plans to continue its assault on illegal hits.

Also, the league's competition committee will propose major changes to kickoffs and use of instant replay at the owners' meeting, which will be held Sunday through Tuesday in New Orleans.

Ray Anderson, the league's executive vice president of football operations, and Falcons president Rich McKay, the chairman of the competition committee, held a teleconference Wednesday. Anderson made it clear that repeat offenders will face suspension.

"We need to be aggressive in disciplining players," Anderson said.

Last season, several players, including Falcons cornerback Dunta Robinson, were fined for hits to defenseless players, but none were suspended. Robinson was fined $50,000, an amount later reduced to $25,000.

"The emphasis is on head and neck hits and what a defenseless player is," Anderson said.

The league will go back two years to determine repeat offenders.

Because of the injury rate on kickoffs, the competition committee proposes that the kickoff line be moved from the 30-yard line to the 35 and that no player other than the kicker may line up more than 5 yards behind the kickoff line. The touchback on the kickoff would be moved from the 20 to the 25.

The committee concluded that there are still too many injuries occurring on kickoffs, and the new rules would restrict the running start a player can get on a kickoff.

In addition to the kickoff changes, the committee will propose a clarification on the defenseless player rule to include receivers until they clearly become runners and to modify instant replay to include automatic review of all scoring plays.

The receivers will join the quarterback, returners catching kicks or punts, runners in the grasp, players on the ground, a kicker or a punter in getting additional protection as defenseless players.

"We also, within that rule, will add a category that will prohibit illegal launching, which will prohibit people from leaving their feet, springing forward and upward, and delivering a blow with any part of his helmet or facemask," McKay said.

The instant-replay proposal has two parts: A decision to review scoring plays would rest in the hands of the replay official, not the coach, and the third challenge would be eliminated.

Re-seeding teams for the playoffs was discussed, but will not be proposed to the owners.

Despite the lockout, the NFL plans to release the preseason schedule for the 2011 season at the end of this month. Also, the regular-season schedule will be released in mid-April.

Falcons' draft prep

Justin Houston, one of the hot hybrid outside linebacker/defensive ends in the NFL draft, is set to meet with the Falcons late next week, according to his representatives.

Houston, who skipped his senior season at Georgia to enter the draft, had 10 sacks and 18 1/2 tackles for loss last season. Houston’s 20 career sacks rank seventh on the school’s all-time list.

Also, Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff, coach Mike Smith and offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey held a private workout for Troy wide receiver Jerrel Jernigan on Wednesday.

Jernigan, 5-foot-8, 185 pounds, has run a couple of sub-4.4 times in the 40-yard dash. He's the 46th rated player in the draft by

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