Connor McGovern is not making starting center money with the New York Jets
One of the more surprising moves of the New York Jets‘ offseason was Connor McGovern‘s contract. There were indications that the Jets were not interested in bringing him back. By all accounts, the team strongly pursued 49ers center Jake Brendel.
Spotrac projected that McGovern’s value on the open market would be over $12 million annually, exceeding the $9 million per year he earned on his previous contract with the Jets. That grossly overestimated the center market, as the top centers on the market, such as Brendel, Bradley Bozeman, and Garrett Bradbury, received $5-6 million per year.
Still, when McGovern signed a one-year, $1.9 million deal with the Jets, it was shocking. Is McGovern really any worse than those other centers? How did the Jets’ starter over the past three years fall from grace so rapidly?
The situation is even odder when you consider that McGovern is currently still the team’s No. 1 center on the depth chart. If the Jets are content to let McGovern start over second-round pick Joe Tippmann, why did the rest of the NFL balk? If McGovern really is worth what his contract says he is, can the Jets truly trust him to be their starter?
McGovern has always been a spotty pass-blocker. The statistics back that up. In 2022, he ranked 21st out of 33 centers with a 3.37% pressure rate, worse than the 3.19% center average. His 1.26% sack-plus-hit rate ranked 29th.
Surprisingly, most of the damage for McGovern seemed to come in non-true pass sets, at least relative to league averages. True pass sets are pass snaps that exclude the freebies for offensive linemen, e.g., screens, play-action, and passes released in under two seconds. Pressure rates are naturally higher without those reps.
McGovern’s 4.2% true pass set pressure rate ranked 13th-best. His sack-plus-hit ranking was 25th at 1.8%. Both of these rankings were better than the overall ones. It seems that McGovern struggled the most (relative to other centers) on plays that should have been the easiest.
Pro Football Focus had a much better opinion of McGovern’s run-blocking, ranking him the 10th-best center in that area with a 69.7 grade. However, Jet X’s Michael Nania was less impressed. He charted every Jets run-blocking play from 2022 (excluding third-and-long runs).
According to Nania’s analysis, McGovern had 71 assists (defined as a good block contributing to a successful rush, i.e., gaining 40% of the required yards on first down, 60% on second down, and a conversion on third or fourth down) compared to 43 stuffs (blown blocks contributing to failed rushes). The 1.65 assist-to-stuff ratio is quite a bit worse than the 2.0 league average estimated by Nania.
While Nania admitted that McGovern was the Jets’ best run-blocker after the bye week, he stated that McGovern’s run-blocking was porous prior to the bye. Therefore, McGovern was a net negative blocker in 2022, struggling in both run and pass-blocking.
In 2022, McGovern had four penalties on 1,111 total block snaps, giving him one penalty per 278 snaps. That was the 12th-best mark out of 33 centers, although the average was one per 279 snaps.
The Jets were one of just three teams not to have an aborted snap in 2022. McGovern was reliable in that area, as well.
With all the Jets’ injuries along the offensive line in 2022, McGovern remained remarkably healthy. He played 100% of their offensive snaps across all 17 games. In his three years with the Jets, McGovern started 48 of a possible 50 games, missing two in 2021. In fact, those are the only two games he’s missed going back over the last five seasons.
McGovern’s availability is certainly a factor to keep in mind.
Nania graded every rep from the Jets’ starting offensive line in the preseason win against the Panthers. His grading curve was on a scale of 2 to -2, with 2 representing an outstanding block and -2 a rep that was dominated by the opponent.
Overall, McGovern was the Jets’ best starting offensive lineman with a +11 score. On 18 snaps, here was his breakdown:
- 2 score: 3
- 1 score: 10
- 0 score: 1
- -1 score: 3
- -2 score: 1
This seems like a solid outing other than the one -2 score. Bear in mind, though, that Nania did not provide a league average. Additionally, the Panthers’ starting interior defensive linemen did not play all 18 of those reps.
As a run-blocker, McGovern generated two outstanding blocks, four good, one neutral, two poor, and no very poor ones. PFF gave him a 62.2 run-blocking grade (which doesn’t mean much considering the multiple ridiculous grading inconsistencies).
In pass protection, PFF did not charge McGovern with any pressures and gave him a 76.4 grade. However, he lost one rep and took a tripping penalty. Overall, he had one outstanding pass block, six good, one poor, and one very poor one.
It’s worth noting that McGovern faced only one true pass set. Zach Wilson’s average release time was 2.09 seconds, and only five out of his 21 reps were over 2.5 seconds. Therefore, McGovern did not have to pass protect for that long.
Against the Buccaneers, McGovern received a 53.0 run-blocking grade and a 60.2 pass-blocking grade. For what it’s worth, it appears that the pass-blocking grade is a product of not having much to do; Wilson had a quick release time again (2.59 seconds), and McGovern didn’t give up any pressure. (PFF gives a 60 grade for a neutral performance.)
Tale of the tape
For all the talk about offensive line play and the Jets’ current woes, there are no truly effective statistics that inform us who the best blockers are. PFF grades are the best we have, but there are still too many baffling inconsistencies. Therefore, the only true measure is to apply one’s own subjectivity by watching the film rather than relying on other subjective graders.
Since offensive linemen play every single offensive rep in the game, the only way to truly get a feel is to watch every rep. More often than not, the offensive lineman wins (as witnessed by the fact that the average pressure rate allowed in 2022 was 5.5% for tackles, 4.4% for guards, and 3.2% for centers). Therefore, I’m trying to put together reps where the offensive lineman either won or lost in a more noticeable way.
Spotty pass protection
There are times when McGovern does a fine job in pass pro, even a good one. He’ll pick up a stunt, give some good help to the guards next to him, and get into his anchor to prevent a bull rush.
Still, the pass protection numbers don’t lie with McGovern, to a large extent: he struggles with bull rushes and stunts.
Decent run-blocker but not second level
Nania’s charting of McGovern’s run-blocking from 2022 better represents his performance than PFF’s grading. There was an incredible amount of putrid run-blocking on his tape for an area that is supposed to be his strength. He has his good reps, too, but he just can’t get it done consistently. His reach blocks are often solid and he usually does a good job popping up the defender’s shoulder to help his linemate, but he can struggle at the second level.
So-so on screens
Laken Tomlinson doesn’t block well on screens due to his lack of athleticism. McGovern should have the athleticism to get out in time, but he seems a bit clunky in that area. His screen blocking was highly inconsistent in 2022, and he whiffed on blocks or got over late a number of times. He also had times when he didn’t get enough of the defender before leaking out for the screen, causing the play to be blown up.
The tape here is a mixed bag. It’s definitely not one of his predominant strengths.
McGovern vs. Tippmann
Tippmann has moved up the depth chart with his preseason play. The Jets drafted him over John Michael Schmitz because of his tremendous upside. He has the potential to be a dominant two-way blocker and also showed incredible athleticism on screens both in college and the preseason.
The Jets re-signed McGovern despite planning to draft a center early, and they told him so. His $1.9 million salary indicates that they didn’t view him as their starter, but he’s been entrenched there nevertheless.
The main reason for that is likely Aaron Rodgers. He is very demanding for a rookie center, wanting perfect snaps, sync on his confusing cadences, and complex defensive reads. Furthermore, Tippmann’s main issue has been his snapping. There is no way he’ll start until he sorts that out.
Therefore, for now, McGovern is likely the starter. In my opinion, he is a capable center with decent talent around him. He’s a below-average pass-blocker and an average run-blocker. The problem is that the Jets have several other offensive line questions: not just at tackle, but also at guard with Tomlinson. McGovern’s and Tomlinson’s weaknesses seemingly fed off each other in 2022 to the detriment of both.
That is my main concern with McGovern. Tippmann’s ceiling is so much higher in all phases of the game. If he’s healthy, I would like to see him overtake McGovern sooner rather than later. Of course, with the unknown status of his knee injury, this could be a moot point.
Will the Jets be okay with McGovern? Probably, but there will undoubtedly be more pass protection lapses than a team wants from its starting center. While having a better quarterback could mitigate some of those issues, it won’t mask all of them.
Until last week, the Jets had no answers at right tackle. Billy Turner and Max Mitchell had played poorly, and Mekhi Becton hadn’t taken a snap at right tackle. Therefore, the best option appeared to be Alijah Vera-Tucker, which would open a spot at guard. Robert Saleh stated that this was a possibility.
Although Wes Schweitzer is a natural guard, he isn’t a good one. Another option was to move McGovern to guard and play Tippmann at center. After all, McGovern played guard early in his career.
If anyone moves to guard, though, it would likely be Tippmann. He practiced there with Tomlinson and Vera-Tucker nursing injuries, and he started there against Tampa Bay. He won’t start at center until he fixes his snapping issues, but that’s not a factor at guard. Getting on the same page with Rodgers also isn’t as hard there.
Additionally, McGovern wasn’t a good guard. In 575 snaps there from 2017-18, he surrendered a 7.0% pressure rate, far worse than the league average for guards (4.4%). Schweitzer was better than that for most of his career, posting a 4.5% guard pressure rate from 2017-20. With the Commanders in 2021-22, Schweitzer yielded a 5.1% rate in 254 guard snaps, but that’s still better than McGovern.
With reports that Becton can win the starting right tackle job and Duane Brown may come off the PUP this week, this may not be an imminent discussion. Still, with their injury histories, the topic is tabled rather than dismissed.
Bringing back McGovern at a low cost was one of Joe Douglas’ most underrated moves this offseason. Whether Tippmann can unseat McGovern could determine the offensive line’s ceiling. At a minimum, the Jets have a competent placeholder.