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Bills Position Preview: Special teams

This is the 11th in series previewing each position on the Buffalo Bills before the July 26 start of training camp.

There’s a lot more on the plate of Buffalo Bills special teams coach Danny Crossman this summer.

The approval of new rules for kickoffs means training camp and preseason games will be a key adjustment period for coaches and players to get familiar with what essentially is a new NFL play.

The new rules prevent the kickoff coverage team from getting a running start. The coverage men must stand within a yard of the kickoff point (the 35-yard line) until the ball is kicked. Meanwhile, at least eight players on the return team must be within 15 yards of where the ball is kicked and there is no hitting in the 15-yard zone between where the ball is kicked and the front line of the return team. There's also no motion by the kicking team until the ball is kicked.

The rules are designed to make the kickoff return function more like a punt return, removing the high-speed collisions among players. The hope is the change significantly reduces concussions. The rule was approved at the spring owners meeting on a one-year basis.

“Obviously it's going to be a drastic change,” said Bills linebacker Lorenzo Alexander. “It's going to be different. How you make plays is going to be different. It’s going to probably be a little bit more space for returners. It's going to be interesting to see how it plays out. But it's going to be a learning curve for all the special teams coaches.”

Returnees: Stephen Hauschka, Colton Schmidt, Reid Ferguson.

Newcomers: Jeremy Kerley (free agent), Ray-Ray McCloud (draft), Austin Proehl (draft), Tyler Davis (free agent), Cory Carter (free agent).

Departures: Brandon Tate (free agent).

What the numbers say: The Bills finished tied for seventh in the annual special-teams rankings compiled by Rick Gosselin. The Bills were one of 10 teams that did not give up any touchdowns on special teams. They were one of 13 that did not commit any giveaways. The hang time of punter Colton Schmidt helped limit foes to 5.5 yards per punt return, fifth best in the league.

What to expect: Training camp always is labor intensive for NFL special teams coaches, even without rules changes.

The bottom third of the 53-man roster undergoes an annual upheaval on virtually every team. That means a lot of special teams learning for the backup linebackers, defensive backs, receivers and running backs – the players who make up the bulk of the special teams units.

Linebacker Deon Lacey led the Bills in special teams snaps last season, playing 65 percent. But he’s no lock to keep a back-up linebacker job this season. Joe Webb was second at 64 percent of the snaps. He’s no longer on the team. Neither are defensive backs Shamarko Thomas, Trae Elston and Shareece Wright and defensive lineman Ryan Davis, all of whom were regulars on coverage and return units.

Then there’s the return game to sort out.

Tate was the primary return man on both kickoffs and punts. He was not brought back and remains a free agent.

In minicamp, sixth-round draft pick Ray-Ray McCloud was first in line catching punts. Veteran Kaelin Clay, seventh-round pick Austin Proehl and veteran Jeremy Kerley were behind him in the punt-returning line. All of those guys have promising return ability. McCloud, Clay, Taiwan Jones, Travaris Cadet and Marcus Murphy are among a big group that could factor into kickoff returns.

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