“Wouldn’t punting the ball be like kicking off? Is it the downfield plays they are afraid of? If so, how does punting differ?”
The difference is that on kickoffs, players are running directly at each other from far apart and there are high speed collisions. On punts, the players begin much closer to each other and there are fewer high speed collisions and, thus, less likelihood of injury.
I’m obviously in the minority, but this doesn’t strike me as a bad idea. It seems like a pretty good balance between offensive and defense and reduces the chance of injury. I would not be surprised if the NFL goes to something like this.
There have been changes in both pro and college kickoffs, and I don’t follow all that closely, so I may be mistaken. I believe, though, that one of the rules this year is that only the kicker can be more than 5 yards behind the line of scrimmage. Perhaps all of the return team could be REQUIRED to be 10 yards from the line of scrimmage, with the exception of one (maybe two) kick returners. This would reduce the high speed collisions to some extent. Probably would also result in longer kick returns...