(Editor's Note: NFL rosters change wildly from year to year. This year will be no different, as the Cowboys seek to upgrade their roster via free agency and the 2021 NFL Draft. Still, a large percentage of their roster is already in place, and they'll have plenty of work to do to improve last season's 6-10 record. In the coming weeks, the staff of DallasCowboys.com will evaluate those players who are already under contract, examining their past performance and future outlook. Today, we continue the series with offensive guard Connor McGovern.)
The Good: It was necessitated by injury, but 2020 finally saw the much-awaited debut of Connor McGovern.
Throughout the last two years, McGovern's status was one of the most burning questions around this team. After all, the Cowboys made him the 90th overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, likening his availability to a "blinking light" -- in other words, they thought he was easily the best player available when they made their pick.
It was a long wait to see if that was true, though. McGovern lost his entire rookie season to a pectoral injury that he sustained during training camp. When training camp rolled around in 2020, he was firmly behind a pair of entrenched starters in Zack Martin and Connor Williams.
That changed during a Monday Night Football loss to Arizona. Martin left the game after just a handful of snaps with a concussion, and McGovern stepped in. It would be the first of nine appearances at guard, with eight of those coming as starts as Martin later dealt with a knee injury.
The Penn State product handled himself well, all things considered. When he was drafted, McGovern was seen as a young and talented prospect for a talent-laden offensive line. But by the time he stepped into the lineup, he was playing between a pair of rookies in center Tyler Biadasz and right tackle Terence Steele.
Even still, the new-look offensive line stabilized itself over time. It certainly wasn't perfect, but McGovern handled his side of the line capably during the second half of the season.
The Bad: It might not be fair, but people place high expectations on a Top 100 draft pick.
In today's NFL, prospects drafted in the first three rounds are expected to contribute early, and many Top 100 picks even claim starting jobs quickly. This past year alone, the Cowboys got 34 combined starts from their first three 2020 draft picks, CeeDee Lamb, Trevon Diggs and Neville Gallimore.
That puts McGovern in an interesting spot. He showed himself to be a capable starter in 2020 – but those starts came after injuries decimated the offensive line. All things being equal, McGovern is not going to supplant a perennial All-Pro like Zack Martin in the lineup. On the other side of the center, Connor Williams was the only original starter who didn't deal with a significant injury last season.
What does that mean for 2021? Martin is presumed to come back healthy this season, and Williams is entering a contract year after three decent, but unspectacular seasons at left guard.
Is McGovern good enough to claim that left guard job at training camp? Is the left guard job even up for grabs, or is the Cowboys' coaching staff sold on the job Williams did last season as the only healthy starter?
It's easy to imagine McGovern spending the 2021 season as a crucial backup – not a starter, but the first guy to go in if there are any problems. From there, he could potentially be the favorite to start in 2022 – just in time for a contract year of his own.
If that's the way it plays out, it would be just fine. There are worse returns on investment than a dependable backup and occasional starter. But there's no denying that it doesn't quite live up to the expectations for the 90th overall pick.
Best Of 2020: The midpoint of the season was a disaster for the Cowboys' offense – mainly due to an unsustainable rash of injuries.
Obviously, things never totally stabilized during a 6-10 season, but it did get a lot better toward the later stages of the year. The offensive line in particular started to play a lot better, as coach Mike McCarthy noted, because the same five guys finally got to start playing together.
The best game of that bunch was probably the Week 16 pasting of Philadelphia. The offensive line did surrender two sacks, but they also paved the way for Ezekiel Elliott to rush for 105 yards – including 78 in the second half, as the Cowboys were nursing a lead. In particular, McGovern threw two solid blocks to help spring Elliott on a 31-yard run in the fourth quarter – his longest run of the season.
Contract Consideration: This was touched on a bit earlier, but the Cowboys' depth on the offensive line makes it tough to figure out McGovern's future.
The 23-year-old is currently at the halfway point of his rookie contract, and he has only appeared in 14 games with eight starts. If he doesn't manage to win a starting job in 2021, he'd potentially be entering the final year of his contract without much in the way of starting experience.
This could work out quite well for the Cowboys, though. If Connor Williams starts all 16 games this coming season, it's entirely possible he exits in free agency at this time next year. If that were to happen, McGovern could step into the hole and try to set himself up for his next contract.
That's obviously looking way too far into the future. The point is that having excessive depth is always a good problem to have. And even if it looks like a log jam right now, these things have a way of working themselves out.
What's Next: This is a tough one to answer.
It's a good guess that someone named Connor will be starting at left guard in 2021. The obvious favorite is Connor Williams, though it's at least conceivable that there could be a competition between he and McGovern. That may depend on the coaches, though. A lot of the same stuff was said during the buildup to training camp last year, and it quickly became apparent that Williams was in no jeopardy of losing his starting slot.
That was before McGovern got his chance to play, though. Perhaps now, with half a season of starting experience, McGovern is better suited to push for a starting role.
But even if not, if 2020 taught us anything, it's that it's never a bad thing to have quality depth – especially along the offensive line.