Jake Brendel is a sneaky New York Jets free agent target
The New York Jets‘ center position is currently vacant. Their starter of the past three years, Connor McGovern, will become an unrestricted free agent in eight days. A reunion with McGovern is possible, although it does not seem like anything close to a certainty. It feels likely the Jets will be actively surveying the center market this offseason.
Some of the most notable centers on the free agent market include Garrett Bradbury, Ethan Pocic, and Bradley Bozeman. All three are intriguing options that could be pursued by New York. Each of them has 50-plus career starts under their belt and is still in their prime, ranging from 27 to 28 years old.
However, the Jets’ best option might be the man who I consider to be the most underrated center in the free agent pool: Jake Brendel.
Brendel is an unknown name among NFL fans. Currently 30 years old and set to turn 31 in September, Brendel was an undrafted free agent out of UCLA in 2016. He was a fringe-roster journeyman throughout most of his career, bouncing between the Cowboys, Dolphins, Broncos, Ravens, and 49ers across his first six seasons. Prior to 2022, he had only started three games in the NFL.
In 2022, Brendel became a full-time starter for the first time in his career, replacing the retired Alex Mack as the 49ers’ opening-week starter at center. Brendel won the starting center role in the offseason and went on to start all 20 of the 49ers’ regular season and playoff games.
Not only did Brendel stay durable and prove himself worthy of holding onto the starting role, but he quietly put together some very strong numbers in an impressive breakout season.
Jake Brendel’s 2022 stats
According to Pro Football Focus, Brendel allowed only 12 pressures on 591 pass-blocking snaps in the 2022 regular season. His allowed pressure rate of 2.03% ranked fourth-best out of 34 qualified centers:
- Corey Linsley, Chargers (0.91%)
- Jason Kelce, Eagles (1.68%)
- Josh Myers, Packers (2.02%)
- Jake Brendel, 49ers (2.03%)
- Frank Ragnow, Lions (2.07%)
Some may scoff at these numbers and chalk them up as a product of the 49ers’ offensive scheme, which can be offensive line-friendly thanks to its reliance on screens, quick passing, and play action.
There is some credence to that theory, but here’s the catch: It’s not as if the 49ers have been effortlessly plugging new centers into their lineup every year and getting excellent production from all of them. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Most of the 49ers’ centers have struggled at pass-blocking.
Brendel’s 2022 pass-blocking numbers are unique for the 49ers. His 2.03% pressure rate is the second-best mark posted by a San Francisco center over Shanahan’s six-year tenure with the team, only marginally trailing the 2021 rate of Alex Mack, who might be a Hall of Famer. Brendel and Mack’s seasons were miles better than the 49ers’ other four primary starting centers who have played under Shanahan:
- Alex Mack, 2021 (2.01%) – 7th of 34
- Jake Brendel, 2022 (2.03%) – 4th of 34
- Weston Richburg, 2019 (3.18%) – 19th of 33
- Daniel Kilgore, 2017 (3.45%) – 21st of 30
- Daniel Brunskill, 2020 (4.55%) – 32nd of 35
- Weston Richburg, 2018 (5.56%) – 31st of 36
So, you can’t just chalk Brendel’s pass-blocking numbers up to the scheme. They seem to be legitimate.
Brendel followed up his regular season with a solid three-game playoff run in which he allowed only two pressures over 89 pass-blocking snaps (2.25% rate).
Pass-blocking should be the Jets’ top priority when evaluating prospective new centers. McGovern was often solid in the run game, but he was maddeningly inconsistent in the passing game, allowing a pressure rate of 3.88% in his Jets career. With an expensive new quarterback (likely) coming in, the Jets cannot afford to have inconsistent pass-blocking at the center position. They can deal with some limitations in the run game. Bad pass-blocking just won’t cut it.
This is a major advantage that Brendel has over the “big three” free agent centers: Bozeman, Bradbury, and Pocic. All three of those players are better known for their run-blocking than their pass protection. If the Jets have to choose one phase for their center to thrive in, it should be pass-blocking. Shelling out the dough for a mauling run blocker who is inconsistent in pass protection does not seem wise for New York. Give me Brendel, who was a shutdown protector this past season.
Let’s be clear, though: It’s not as if Brendel was only good at pass-blocking in 2022. He showed plenty of promise in the run game, too.
In the run game, Brendel helped lead the 49ers’ offensive line to a No. 1 ranking in adjusted line yards (ALY) per carry on rush attempts up the middle, earning a mark of 4.94. ALY is a stat from Football Outsiders that uses regression analysis to get a better estimate of the offensive line’s responsibility in creating rushing yards. San Francisco’s high ranking in this category suggests the team was very consistent at picking up positive chunks of yardage when rushing through the A-gaps – something the center likely played a large role in.
Just like in the passing game, Brendel cannot just be pegged as a beneficiary of the scheme here. Over the previous five seasons prior to 2022, the 49ers’ average ranking in ALY per carry on rush attempts up the middle was 18th. They ranked 20th in 2021 and 26th in 2020.
Individually, Brendel scored well in ESPN’s run block win rate, ranking fifth-best among centers with a mark of 72%.
The only red flag on Brendel’s resume is, well, his yellow flags. Brendel does commit a high number of penalties. He led centers with 11 penalty flags (9 accepted, 2 declined). That includes four for holding, four for a false start, and three for ineligible man downfield.
Still, the penalty woes don’t take away from Brendel’s overall excellent production in both pass protection and run-blocking. He is the most underrated free agent center on the market.
Why Brendel could make sense for the Jets
For the Jets, targeting Brendel in free agency could make a lot of sense for a few different reasons.
Brendel offers scheme familiarity thanks to his experience in San Francisco’s offense. The Jets do not have former 49ers assistant Mike LaFleur running the show anymore, but with fellow west-coast user Nathaniel Hackett coming in, they figure to continue running a similar scheme.
From a skill-set perspective, Brendel is a strong fit for what the Jets want to do offensively – hence why he was successful with the 49ers. Brendel is a smaller center (299 pounds) who boasts tremendous athleticism for the position, making him the perfect player for a wide-zone running scheme. Back at the 2016 combine, Brendel ran a 5.01s forty (90th percentile for C), 4.27s twenty-yard shuttle (97th), and a 7.31s three-cone (90th).
Granted, that was seven years ago and Brendel was only 283 pounds at the time, but his athletic skills probably haven’t waned too much.
Brendel’s elite pass-blocking production should be extremely intriguing to the Jets after all of the protection woes they have dealt with in recent years, particularly with McGovern at center. This trait is especially appealing in comparison to run-favoring free agent centers like Bozeman, Bradbury, and Pocic.
The Jets are not exactly overflowing with cap space, which is another thing that could point them in Brendel’s direction. Brendel will likely be a much less expensive option than players like Bozeman, Bradbury, and Pocic due to his age and his small sample of playing time. The latter is a legitimate concern, as Brendel could certainly be a one-year wonder, but that risk will be offset by a decrease in cost.
When it comes to Brendel’s age, the lack of mileage on his tires gives him a better chance to thrive into his thirties than most other NFL players who have already taken thousands of in-game hits by that age. Brendel has only started 23 NFL games, including the playoffs. He’s fresh and should have his best days ahead of him.
Some Jets fans might be skeptical about the idea of adding another former 49ers lineman after witnessing Laken Tomlinson’s disappointing 2022 season in New York. Personally, I don’t think the Jets should let Tomlinson deter them from pursuing Brendel (or Mike McGlinchey, another 49ers lineman who is a top free agent).
Tomlinson was a signing that made sense at the time. He turned out to be a bust (so far). It happens – you can’t always foresee these things. His underperformance lies upon his shoulders as an individual and is not a good reason to avoid signing players who come from the same team.
I would keep a close eye on Jake Brendel as a potential target for the Jets in free agency. He checks a lot of boxes for New York.
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