Ranking 32 impending NFL free agent centers and tackles from best to worst, based on an accumulation of their 2020 statistics.
Using an agglomeration of three different key statistics, I ranked the 12 centers and 20 offensive tackles that are set to hit NFL free agency and logged at least 200 snaps in 2020. This is the ninth in a series of articles that will rank all of the qualified free agents at key positions of need for the New York Jets. I have already ranked 47 free agent wide receivers, 47 free agent edge rushers, 53 free agent cornerbacks, 30 free agent running backs, 28 free agent tight ends, 33 free agent linebackers, 31 free agent safeties and 20 free agent guards.
Center and tackle are not prime positions of need for the Jets, but they are not entirely off the table as potential targets in free agency. Mekhi Becton is obviously penciled-in on the left side, but there are some question marks at center and right tackle.
At center, Connor McGovern had a rough 2020 season with his awareness in pass protection, but he thrived as a run blocker and one-on-one pass protector. With those strengths and weaknesses in mind and considering his past NFL experience as a starting guard, it’s feasible to consider the possibility that the Jets decide to slide him over to guard and add a new center.
At right tackle, George Fant is coming off of a decent 2020 season, but nothing spectacular. The Jets can escape his contract to clear $7.4 million in cap savings while taking on $2 million in dead money. Considering that contract flexibility and the fact that there are some elite right tackle options on the market, there is certainly somewhat of a possibility that Joe Douglas decides to look for an upgrade.
Let’s hop into the rankings. The players were ranked according to their cumulative performance between pass protection and run blocking, using three different statistics.
Here are the stats used:
Pressure percentage allowed: The percentage of a player’s pass blocking snaps in which they were credited with allowing a pressure – either a sack, hit, or hurry.
Pro Football Focus pass blocking grade: PFF’s all-encompassing evaluation of a player’s performance as a pass blocker based on the grading of every coverage snap.
This stat effectively conveys the true quality of a player’s pass blocking regardless of the production he allowed. If a player gives up a sack after blocking for five-plus seconds, that sack is not his fault, and the coverage grade will reflect that by not blaming him (maybe even crediting him positively if the initial block was strong enough). On the other hand, a player can boost his protection numbers by playing in a quick-release offense where he logs “pass blocking snaps” in which he didn’t actually block anyone because the ball was released quickly. These pass blocking snaps rightfully receive no credit in PFF’s grading system.
Reps in which a player holds a rusher at bay for four seconds receive more credit than ones where he limits the rusher for two seconds, reps in which he is absolutely destroyed are knocked more harshly than ones where he allows minor penetration, reps in which nobody is blocked receive no credit in either direction … and so forth. This is PFF’s attempt at weeding out the noise of raw totals to truly approximate a player’s pass blocking effectiveness.
Pro Football Focus run blocking grade: PFF’s all-encompassing evaluation of a player’s performance as a run blocker based on the grading of every coverage snap. Players who consistently execute their assignment at a sufficient level tend to fare well here, while players who consistently blow their assignment to allow play-disrupting penetration tend to fare poorly. The players who grade at an elite level in this area tend to be eye-popping difference-makers who rack up a ton of overpowering blocks in which they blast their defender to the ground or far off the ball.
Each player’s percentile ranking among all qualified guards in pressure percentage was combined with their percentile ranking in PFF’s pass blocking grade to form a pass protection score. That pass protection score was averaged with each player’s percentile ranking in PFF’s run blocking grade to form an overall score by which the group was ranked.
Let’s start at the center position.
Here is a look at the career snap counts by position for each player, showcasing positional versatility.
For comparison, Connor McGovern’s numbers on the above chart would be: 2nd percentile pressure rate (5.5%), 10th percentile pass blocking grade (42.7), and 71st percentile run blocking grade (71.0) for an overall score of 38.7. However, it’s worth mentioning that McGovern progressed greatly as the season went on, as we will get into below.
A Ben Garland reunion seems interesting
Garland will soon be 33 years old, but as a career backup, he does not have much mileage on his tires in the NFL, logging just 15 career starts.
Over the past two seasons, Garland started eight regular season games at center for the 49ers and new Jets offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur. He also started at center for all three of San Francisco’s 2019 playoff games, allowing two pressures (0 sacks) and committing no penalties over the three-game run to the Super Bowl.
Even though he only offers a small sample size of 11 starts, Garland was largely solid for San Francisco. He allowed only 10 pressures (including just one sack) over 399 protection snaps, a rate of 2.5% that falls below the 2020 positional average of 3.1%. In the run game, Garland posted the seventh-best PFF run blocking grade among centers (including the playoffs) in the 2019 season (73.1) and the 11th-best in the 2020 regular season (72.4).
Perhaps LaFleur pushes Joe Douglas to get a familiar veteran in on a one-year deal to help implement his offense?
Plenty of decent options
If the Jets do indeed want to go the “move McGovern to guard” route, there are plenty of decent center options to allow them to do so.
Seven of the 12 players in our rankings posted a score above 50.0. Corey Linsley is elite, while Garland, Austin Reiter, Ted Karras, Tyler Shatley, and Daniel Kilgore all had respectable seasons. Patriots center David Andrews was also a fine starter in 2020, but he was once among the position’s biggest stars until missing the 2019 season with a pulmonary embolism. Should New England let him walk, Andrews could be a steal for his new team if he can recapture his former peaks.
Alex Mack is another stopgap option worth mentioning. While Mack is going to turn 36 years old during the upcoming season and has seen his overall PFF grade decline in three consecutive seasons, he has a few Jets connections from his time in Atlanta. Mike LaFleur shared one season with Mack in 2016, a campaign that resulted in a Super Bowl trip. Defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich coached against Mack in practice throughout all five of Mack’s seasons with the Falcons. New Jets quarterbacks coach Greg Knapp was in Atlanta from 2018-20.
In 2020, Mack dipped to a subpar level in pass protection, but he was still an upper-tier run blocker.
Ultimately, in my humble opinion, the Jets would be best-served leaving McGovern at center and focusing on the two spots beside him. McGovern was a top-10 center in his first year playing the position for the Broncos in 2019, and in 2020, he eventually got back to that level after a rocky start. PFF ranked McGovern as the league’s seventh-best center from Weeks 9-17.
McGovern looked effective from a purely physical standpoint throughout the season. It was the mental aspect that he struggled with – a strange development since he thrived in that facet of the game in 2019. While his struggles in this area cannot be completely blamed on his surroundings (some of his mistakes were just not excusable), it is worth noting how bad the Jets’ guard play was. McGovern was certainly hampered to some degree in the blitz/stunt pickup department by the players next to him.
Considering his improvement throughout the season and the extremely poor quality of the guards beside him, the Jets should be able to feel comfortable about McGovern turning around his awareness and pickup ability in 2021 if they can get some better talent at the guard spots.
If McGovern can get his mental game back to where it was in 2019 and combine that with the athletic run blocking and proficient one-on-one protection he showcased in 2020, he can be one of the best centers in football.
Let’s take a look at how the free agent tackles stacked up. There are a handful of highly intriguing options on the board that could entice Douglas to dip his toes into the market.