Malik Washington could see 2024 NFL Draft stock skyrocket after kick return rule change

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Eleventh in an 11-part series. 

Malik Washington returned kicks for much of his football life and got back to that part of his game this past season, when he was a graduate student transfer at the University of Virginia. 

Little did he know he might have been raising his draft value, as well. 

Last month, the NFL passed a rule that should encourage more kickoff returns

Malik Washington speaks at the NFL combine on March 1, 2024. Getty Images

While kickoffs will still come from the kicking team’s own 35-yard line, the other 10 players on the kicking team will now line up on the receiving team’s 40-yard line and won’t be able to start running downfield until the kickoff is received or the ball touches the ground. 

NFL Competition Committee chairman Rich McKay said the owners passed the rule last month in order for teams to have time to adjust their rosters accordingly, including for the upcoming NFL draft. 

“The kickoff returners’ value is gonna skyrocket,” Cowboys special teams coach John Fassel said at the time. 

All of this is good news for Washington, who said he started getting text messages on his phone as soon as news of the rule change — which is similar to the kickoff rule that had been used in the XFL — became public. 

“I had already planned on trying to get integrated into special teams,” Washington said of his plans as a projected mid-round draft pick who also plays wide receiver. “But I had no idea this was gonna happen.” 

But he’s glad it did, and the timing couldn’t be better for the 23-year-old out of Lawrenceville, Ga., a suburb of Atlanta. 

“I know we’re gonna see more returns, which gives more opportunities for returners to make things happen,’’ Washington said. “It gives me another opportunity to help the team.” 

Malik Washington returned kicks while at Virginia, but views himself as a receiver first. Getty Images

Washington started his college career at Northwestern before moving on to Virginia, where he returned 14 kicks last year. 

When he learned about the rule change, he immediately got to work. 

“I went back and watched how it worked in the XFL,’’ Washington said. “You never think the game is gonna change that much, the game I grew up watching the last 18-19 years. So to see something like this happen is pretty cool, especially knowing I get a chance to be a part of it.” 

And he’s confident he can use the rule to his benefit. 

“One hundred percent,’’ Washington said. “Anytime I have the ball in my hand, I think it’s gonna be to my benefit. Getting a chance to do that on returns is gonna be huge for myself and whatever team I’m on.” 

Still, Washington considers himself a wide receiver first and a kick returner second. 

The 5-foot-9, 190-pound Washington is seen as a sure-handed slot receiver who has the ability to break tackles. That trait should also help on returns. 

“I haven’t thought about teams looking at me differently now,” Washington said of the rule change. “I hope it moves me up some [draft] boards. I wouldn’t mind that.” 

While he awaits the draft, Washington is back in Atlanta, working with trainers and focusing on his running skills. 

“I want to be ready,” Washington said. “I’m spending time with track coaches, improving my techniques.” 

Malik Washington runs the 40-yard dash at the NFL combine on March 2, 2024. Getty Images

He’s looking for a return to the days of the highlight-reel kick returners. 

“We all remember Devin Hester,’’ Washington said of the former Bears return specialist he grew up watching, who was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame this year. “I even remember him at [the University of] Miami. He wasn’t like anybody else. Just seeing guys have freedom with the ball in their hand. Now, you see guys like Derius Davis with the Chargers, one of the fastest players in football. I try to take different pieces from their games, learn different schemes and holes and how to get through and break one open.” 

Washington hopes he can join that group. 

“This is something I’ve done since I was young,’’ Washington said. “Making guys miss and breaking tackles is what I do. It’s in my DNA. That’s how I’ve always played the game and how I grew up watching the game: guys running through tackles, making things happen [and] not going down with the first contact. That’s a huge part of my game, and I plan on carrying it over to the rest of my career.” 

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