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NFL expands rule against misuse of helmet; Guardian Caps required in regular season, postseason

PHOENIX -- The NFL unveiled two safety-related measures on Tuesday at the Annual League Meeting intended to further protect players' heads, just months after the 2022 season saw an uptick in the number of diagnosed concussions, an increase that was attributed in large part to concussions suffered by quarterbacks.

Here's a further breakdown:

1. The most significant change expands the rule against using the helmet as a weapon. A 15-yard penalty will continue to be called if a player lowers his head and makes forcible contact with his helmet against an opponent. But now, a player will also be penalized if he uses any part of his helmet or face mask to butt or make forcible contact to an opponent's head or neck area. If the foul is committed by a defensive player, it will also automatically result in a first down for the offense. The player could be disqualified. Incidental contact by the mask or helmet in the course of a conventional block or tackle is allowed. The league expects most of the penalties will be called on players in space, not on those who are playing close to the line of scrimmage.

The expectation is that the new rule will be enforced on the field or after the fact in the form of fines, to try to eliminate some of the behaviors that are still being seen. The league views it as another step in the evolution of trying to get the head out of the game.

"That will have the longest lasting impact," said Jeff Miller, the NFL's executive vice president, communications, public affairs and policy, of the new rule. "You can't use your helmet to hit somebody in the head."

"The goal is to change the culture."

2. The Guardian Caps that were worn during training camps last season will now be mandated at every preseason practice, as well as every regular-season and postseason practice with contact. Players at position groups where head contact is seen most are required to wear the Guardian Cap, with running backs and fullbacks joining the previously included linemen and linebackers. The only positions not required to wear the caps are kickers, punters, quarterbacks, wide receivers and defensive backs.

Last season, players were only required to wear the caps up to the second preseason game, although several teams wore them throughout the season. The league's data showed that if one player is wearing the Guardian Cap at the time of a helmet hit, the cap will absorb 11 to 12 percent of the force. If both players are wearing the cap and have a helmet-to-helmet hit, the force of the impact is reduced by around 20 percent.

3. The hip drop tackle, which the league says leads to injury at a rate 20 times that of other tackles and causes more severe lower body injuries, is going to be a topic of more study leading into the owners' May meeting. The league wants coaches to agree on a definition of what constitutes a hip drop tackle and then if a rule is written, time will have to be spent educating officials and players. One concern is that it would be very difficult for officials to identify the tackle properly and be able to call the foul in real time. If a rule is eventually written and approved, the league expects most of the initial enforcement come in the form or warnings and fines after the game is over, and that most of the penalties called would be on tackles that occur out in space.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter.

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