Who are the best NFL free agent centers in 2023?
The New York Jets could be in the market for a new center this offseason. Their center of the past three years, Connor McGovern, is an unrestricted free agent. It remains to be seen whether New York will bring back McGovern or look for a fresh start in the middle of their offensive line.
If the Jets decide to dip into the free agency pool for a new leader of their offensive line, here are some names to keep an eye on.
Ethan Pocic, Browns
Ethan Pocic is likely the No. 1 center on the market. Pocic is in his prime at 27 years old and just had a breakout season in his first year with the Browns. In pass protection, his allowed pressure rate of 2.2% (per PFF) ranked sixth-best out of 34 qualified centers, and in the run game, his blown-block rate of 1.1% (per SIS) also ranked sixth-best.
The question mark is whether Pocic can translate his success to a new team after benefiting from a great environment in Cleveland. Pocic was tutored by legendary offensive line coach Bill Callahan and played next to two star guards in Joel Bitonio and Wyatt Teller. Prior to 2022, Pocic spent five years in Seattle and often struggled.
Bradley Bozeman, Panthers
Bradley Bozeman, 28, has a reputation as one of the league’s best run-blocking centers. He had the seventh-lowest blown-block rate among centers at 1.5%. His pass protection was a little shoddy as he ranked 23rd with an allowed pressure rate of 3.6%.
Bozeman is known as a physical mauler and fits best in a power-running scheme. The Jets ran a zone-running scheme last year, but with Mike LaFleur and John Benton gone, things could change when the Jets hire a new offensive coordinator and offensive line coach.
Garrett Bradbury, Vikings
A first-round pick in 2019, Garrett Bradbury is a talented player but has never quite recorded the production to back up his draft billing. In 2022, he ranked 29th out of 34 qualified centers with an allowed pressure rate of 4.5% and 28th with a blown-block rate of 4.1%. He is still just 27 years old, although he has missed nine games over the past two years.
Bradbury is an elite athlete – he recorded a Relative Athletic Score (RAS) of 9.96 during the 2019 pre-draft process. With strong coaching and the right scheme, Bradbury could still develop into a top-tier center, specifically in an offense that makes use of his athleticism. The Jets’ wide-zone offense under LaFleur would have been a good fit for him.
Jake Brendel, 49ers
Jake Brendel was a surprise breakout player for the 49ers this year. Brendel was an undrafted free agent in 2016 and spent time with five teams over his first six seasons, making only three starts over that span. In 2022, he won the 49ers’ starting center job at 30 years old, and he did not disappoint in his first campaign as a starter.
Brendel started all 17 games in 2022 and was one of the league’s best pass-blocking centers. He allowed pressure on just 2.0% of his pass-blocking snaps, ranking fourth-best at the position. In the 49ers’ wild card win over Seattle, Brendel allowed zero pressures over 34 pass-blocking snaps.
Run-blocking and penalties are areas where Brendel can improve. Brendel ranked 27th with a blown-block rate of 3.9% and led centers with nine penalties.
Still, there are reasons to believe Brendel makes a lot of sense for New York if they are looking for a cost-effective option. Brendel would offer high-level pass protection at a cost that should be affordable due to his age, deficiencies, and lack of a proven track record. If the Jets hire an offensive coordinator from a similar background to LaFleur, Brendel would also offer some scheme familiarity.
I like Brendel as a sneaky target for the Jets. For the price tag he should command, I would deal with his weaknesses to get his excellent pass protection.
Jason Kelce, Eagles
Despite being 35 years old, Jason Kelce is still the gold standard at center. Kelce started all 17 games for Philadelphia while allowing the second-lowest pressure rate (1.7%) and posting the lowest blown-block rate (0.4%) among centers. He has not missed a game since 2014.
We shall see if Kelce decides to return for a 13th season, and if he does, whether he would be willing to leave the Eagles.
Rodney Hudson, Cardinals
Rodney Hudson is 33 and played only four games this past season due to a knee injury. His best days are behind him, but he is still a very good pass protector when healthy. Hudson allowed pressure on just 1.5% of his pass-blocking snaps in 2022, which would have ranked fourth-best among qualifiers. Run-blocking has never been his strength.
Connor McGovern, Jets
For comparison’s sake, I figured I would include McGovern in here.
McGovern, 29, ranked 21st out of 34 qualified centers with an allowed pressure rate of 3.4% in 2022. He ranked 25th with a 3.5% blown-block rate in the run game.
McGovern is a puzzling player to watch on film. He is physically gifted, boasting athletic traits that few centers can match. Because of his athleticism, McGovern’s best moments are phenomenal. There are a lot of highlights on his film. But he lacks consistency. Whether it’s game-to-game or play-to-play, it feels like McGovern cannot maintain his peak level of play for sustained stretches. Ultimately, his impact usually averages out to a net zero. McGovern is not a bad center, but I just haven’t seen enough stability to call him a good one.
In fairness to McGovern, he has been playing next to poor guards for most of his Jets career (save for the 19 games that Alijah Vera-Tucker has played at guard), so that might be contributing to his lack of consistency. Still, McGovern is a player who leans on the erratic side – especially in pass protection.
I think the Jets’ decision with McGovern will come down to their offensive coordinator hire. If they stick with a wide-zone run scheme, I think McGovern stays. He is a perfect fit for the wide-zone with his lateral quickness and smooth hips. But if the Jets go with an offensive coordinator who wants to increase the Jets’ usage of gap/power concepts, I think the Jets will search for a better fit.
I also think the Jets will move on from McGovern if the new OC wants to run a dropback passing game with longer-developing concepts that keep the QB in the pocket. In that type of scheme, pass protection will be much more important from the center position than run-blocking, and McGovern’s skill-set leans towards the run game. McGovern’s pass protection can be better hidden in a scheme that runs a lot of play-action, rollouts, and RPOs.
The Jets’ decision at the center position is one of the most fascinating storylines of their 2023 offseason. Forget who’s playing quarterback – I’m more interested in who will be snapping him the ball.
Alright, that’s a lie – I cannot resist some juicy quarterback drama – but still… center is an extremely crucial hole for New York to fill. Do not underestimate the importance of the Jets’ decision at this spot.
Interesting profile of McGovern. One hopeful note is that if he has the basic athleticism to be a top-notch center, then maybe with experience and better line-mates he will become more and more consistent. My impression is that he used to play guard with Denver and has only played center consistently the couple of years he has been with the Jets. OLinemen usually have a longer playing life than other positions, so he might be a good bet for the Jets, that is if nobody better is available.
Ok, so interesting group, and based on your summary a bit uninspiring. I think the key is something you wrote in the top of the article. “Great environment in Cleveland…played next to 2 star guards.” so they can start by getting the OL coach who is the best in the business if you ask me. Then they can draft a center. Callahan can be that Sr. Offensive Assistant Saleh spoke of and probably get the most out of AVT, Becton, and whoever they draft.
I know it’s wishful thinking but hey we are talking about Derek Carr, and Lamar Jackson so it’s the time of the year to make wishes.