New York Jets center Connor McGovern has the talent to be a top-10 center if he can tap back into his play as a Denver Bronco.
Connor McGovern‘s first year with the New York Jets was somewhat of a disappointment. After a 2019 season in which he played like a top-10 center for the Broncos, he was brought in to make Jets fans forget about the league-worst center play they had watched since Nick Mangold’s retirement, but he was not as big of an upgrade as hoped.
McGovern finished the 2020 season with an overall Pro Football Focus grade of 62.2, which ranked 25th out of 38 qualified centers. In 2019, McGovern earned a grade of 72.0 that ranked ninth-best out of 37 qualifiers.
As a run blocker, McGovern actually improved over his 2019 season. He jumped from 19th among centers in PFF’s run blocking grade (64.1) to 13th (70.5).
It was in pass protection where McGovern fell off the face of the Earth. The North Dakota native dropped from fifth among centers in PFF’s pass blocking grade (82.5) to 36th (42.7).
McGovern allowed 33 pressures in 2020, tied for the most among centers (with now-teammate Dan Feeney). That was more than double his 2019 total of 15 pressures – which gave him an average of less than one pressure per game.
The most puzzling aspect of McGovern’s decline in pass protection is the fact that the majority of his struggles had to do with the mental parts of the job despite his success in those areas in 2019. McGovern remained a solid one-on-one pass protector like he was the year before, but he had a lot of trouble with picking up blitzes, handling stunts, and providing help to his guards, which was odd to watch considering he thrived in these facets of the position back in 2019.
If McGovern is going to return to his peak as a top-5 pass blocking center, this is where he needs to get better. He went from an elite player in the mental side of pass protection to a brutal one. Most of the pressures he gave up were due to him failing to identify and execute a pickup rather than him being defeated mano e mano.
Let’s compare McGovern’s excellence with pickups in 2019 to his issues in that facet in 2020.
In 2020, McGovern had a hard time with most pass protection responsibilities that were not simple one-on-one battles.
McGovern is uncovered pre-snap. Post-snap, he scans for work from right-to-left, keeping his left hand extended to feel out the action to that side. McGovern feels the left guard (Josh Andrews) coming toward him with his left hand, so he turns his head in that direction.
At this point, McGovern should work to the left and help Andrews with his man. Andrews made the right call and passed his man over to McGovern so he could pick up the blitzing linebacker (although his pickup was terrible). However, for whatever reason, McGovern does not pick up Andrews’ man when he scans left. Instead, he turns his head back to the right and opens his body up in that direction, allowing Andrews’ man to come through untouched.
McGovern takes on the nose tackle after the snap. The NT is simply trying to keep McGovern occupied so he doesn’t see the crashing 5-technique defensive end coming from the right side, and it works. McGovern is late to recognize the crashing DE and is knocked to the ground, allowing pressure.
Another one of McGovern’s primary issues in 2020 was his help in pass protection. He made some mistakes when attempting to help out one of his guards.
McGovern ensures the DT to his left is engaged with the left guard, and he then ranges right to provide help. This is a fine decision, but the technique in his pursuit is not good. He puts his head down and lunges at the defender, completely whiffing, knocking George Fant back and creating an open lane for the defender to get to Sam Darnold.
McGovern looks to provide help too early, not scanning the entire field or ensuring that he’s clear before moving. He sees the 2i-technique defensive tackle engage the right guard and leaves his drag hand (right hand) out to feel his right side and make sure the DT truly engages. At the same time, he turns his head left and stares down the left-side action. Once McGovern doesn’t feel anything on his right side for an extended period of time, he is able to confirm that the DT was picked up by the RG, so he ranges to his left.
However, McGovern never checks for threats to his right or up the middle, and he completely misses the blitz from the right-side linebacker. Denzel Perryman gets an unblocked sack as McGovern vacates his spot too early without first confirming that he was clear.
McGovern was impressively apt at recognizing and blocking stunts in 2019.
The Colts sugar the A-gaps, which means they have a linebacker standing up over each A-gap pre-snap. The linebacker to McGovern’s right drops into coverage while the linebacker to his left blitzes toward the left guard. McGovern digs his hands into the blitzer’s hips and shoves him out of the play completely. He then turns his attention to the lopping defensive tackle, picking him up effectively to shut down the stunt.
McGovern is covered by a 1-technique defensive tackle over his left shoulder. The DT’s job is to crash down and create room for the linebacker (who stands up over the LT) to loop past McGovern and through the right-side A-gap. McGovern handles the power rush long enough to pass the DT off to the left guard once the guard is ready – which is when the LB loops to bring the LG’s eyes and hips inside, naturally putting him in position to pick up the DT. McGovern then slides over and picks up the looper.
A linebacker stands up over McGovern’s right shoulder. The LB jabs to McGovern’s left before rushing right, looking to take McGovern with him. McGovern isn’t fooled. He passes off the LB and continues to use his peripheral vision to scan for threats, allowing him to identify the 4i-tech defensive tackle looping behind the LB. McGovern slides left and picks up the DT, working him into the left guard for a double-team.
As we got into earlier, one of McGovern’s issues in 2020 was the help that he provided to his guards. Here are a couple of examples of McGovern providing great help in 2019.
Pre-snap, McGovern is covered by a linebacker. After he snaps the ball, he prepares to take on the LB. The LB drops back into coverage, and McGovern keeps his eyes on him to ensure that he is dropping back. Once he is completely sure that the LB is dropping, McGovern looks to provide help. He moves left and plows the defensive tackle into the ground.
McGovern is covered by the 1-technique. He prepares to engage with him, but the 1-tech drops into coverage. McGovern ensures that the defender is truly dropping, scans for threats from left-to-right, and then makes the right decision to range over to his right and help out the right guard.
Connor McGovern’s 2020 struggles are highly fixable. None of the issues that led to his lackluster productivity were a sign of deteriorating skill or physical capability. He just has to dig deep and figure out how he can get back to playing with the natural smarts that he displayed in 2019.
There are a few reasons to feel confident McGovern can get his pass protection back up to a high-quality level. His new left guard, Alijah Vera-Tucker, has awesome mental skills and excels at picking up stunts. On the right side, if things hold and Greg Van Roten maintains his starting spot, McGovern will have a year of experience with Van Roten to build off of. McGovern will also get to play under offensive line coach John Benton, who has a great track record of fostering improvement in his units.
New #Jets OL coach John Benton coached the 49ers OL from 2017-20
In 2016, the year before Benton, SF's O-linemen combined for an overall PFF grade of 63.8, 29th in the NFL
From 2017-20, SF's O-linemen combined for an overall PFF grade of 69.8, 7th-best in the NFL over that span
— Michael Nania (@Michael_Nania) January 21, 2021
McGovern’s run blocking should remain a plus in 2020. He was solid in that area this past season and should become even more productive in a wide-zone scheme that will maximize his tremendous athleticism.
If he can just get his wherewithal as a pass protector back to the level it was at in 2019, he still has the talent to be a top-10 center.