When the New England Patriots lost starting center David Andrews for the season last August, they made sure to keep their five best offensive linemen on the field by handing his job to veteran Ted Karras. The fourth-year man did a solid job filling in for the team captain, while also ensuring that some stability remained by inserting him into the lineup: the other four positions were not directly impacted by Andrews’ absence.
Fast forward to 2020, and a similar situation. While not for the remainder of the season this time around, Andrews has again been moved to injured reserve after fracturing a finger on his snapping hand last week. He will now have to sit out at least three games before being eligible to return to practice and the active roster. For however long Andrews’ absence will turn out to be, however, New England again needs to find a replacement.
The most logical choice would have been to hand the job to Hjalte Froholdt. The second-year man appeared to establish himself as the Patriots’ top interior backup over the summer, effectively filling the role previously held by free agency departee Karras. Head coach Bill Belichick and first-year O-line coaches Cole Popovich and Carmen Bricillo had a different plan in mind: keep the five best players on the field regardless of position.
This led to some shuffling up front. Froholdt remained on the sidelines while Joe Thuney was moved from his starting left guard spot to center — a first for him since he arrived in New England back in 2016.
The veteran, who is playing the 2020 season on the franchise tag, took the change of position in stride: he looked comfortable in his new position both as a run blocker and a pass protector, while the line as a whole did not skip a beat. Thuney himself also sounded rather pleased with his and the line’s performance as a whole when talking about the move inside following Sunday’s 36-20 victory over the Las Vegas Raiders.
“It was alright, just tried to get a snap first, then communicate the whole time. You know, just tried to do what centers do and try to play well. And yeah, my teammates helped me a lot. Cam [Newton] was great. Dave and James [Ferentz] throughout the week were great, so you know, just tried to do what I could,” he said.
“You got to definitely worry about the snap first and then you are a little closer in line to the D-line. And you’ve got to communicate too. It’s a little more responsibility, but like I said, my teammates have been great all week. Everyone has been talking which has been great. Yeah, they all helped me out, so it was great.”
Thuney was on the field for all 69 offensive snaps on Sunday, manning the rather unfamiliar role. Along the way, he experienced that the position itself is rather different from his normal one not just because of the added responsibility of handling the center-quarterback exchange on every play, but also when it comes to communication with the rest of the line and making the protection calls before the snap.
“Center you usually communicate, you know, with right side/left side usually. Left guard is mostly talking to the left tackle and center. So, yeah, it’s across the board,” he said after the game. “But like I said, the guys, the guards and tackles, everyone has been locked in all week on the game plan. And everyone’s been on the same page, so they made it a lot easier for me. So that was great.”
Thuney’s ability to move from one starting position to another ensured the Patriots would field a high-quality offensive line even after losing Andrews. His versatility, meanwhile, was also praised by others in the organization after last Sunday’s game.
“Joe’s a great teammate, he’ll do whatever he can to help the team win,” said Bill Belichick. “Filling in for Dave, that’s a big job. We just felt like that was the best combination we had for this particular game. We’ll see how that goes going forward. We’ll just take it week by week here. Collectively, the offensive line certainly held their own and did a good job here [on Sunday]. I’ll have to look at the film and take a look at each play and so forth.”
Team captain Matthew Slater, meanwhile, noted that it would take a “special player” to be able to make the transition in such seamless fashion.
“We ask a lot of our centers and for him to be able to bounce over like that was big for us,” Slater said. “You know, Joe is such an unselfish guy. He’s really always been about putting the team first from the first day he got here. And he is such a joy to be around. He’s a great kid and we are really lucky to have him. You talk about a guy with a lot of football IQ who physically has a great skillset. Those are some of the things that really enable him to do that. And certainly we appreciate him being able to do that.”
While Slater and Belichick usually had to watch the action unfold from afar — Slater played only one offensive snap as part of New England’s knee-down unit — those who saw the change of position up close also spoke glowingly about Thuney: quarterback Cam Newton as well as running backs Sony Michel and Rex Burkhead.
“Smokin’ Joe is a person who is very reliable on this offensive line,” said Newton. “The moment wasn’t too big for him to step right in to fill the shoes of Dirty Dave. So I was just excited that... To have anybody be replacing somebody, you’ll want that transaction to be what it was.”
“He came in there and did a great job,” added Michel. “He practiced as hard as he could all week. Came in, stepped in at a new position. Sometimes in this game and this sport, you have to adjust and I think that’s exactly what he did and he did it well.”
Michel and the rest of the running back group certainly benefitted from the blocking up front. After a slow start, Thuney and the rest of the offensive line started to dominate at the point of attack to allow the third-year back to rush for 117 yards on just nine carries — including season-long runs of 38 and 48 yards. Rex Burkhead, meanwhile, gained 49 yards on six carries while also finding the end zone for a pair of touchdowns.
The veteran back, who took on a bigger role due to James White’s absence, also spoke glowingly about Thuney’s move to center.
“For Joe to switch positions to a position where you’ve got to make a ton of calls, and for him to step in right away and do it with ease was unbelievable,” Burkhead said after the game. “He’s one of the smartest football players I’ve definitely ever been around, one of the best linemen in the game. And for them to do that and to set the tone from the get-go in the running game was outstanding.”
Thuney was not the only player to switch positions in the aftermath of Andrews’ trip to injured reserve, though.
With him moving over to center, the Patriots had to fill a vacancy at left guard. Based on experience, Froholdt or James Ferentz would again have been the top choices. However, the team threw another curveball by moving sixth-round rookie Michael Onwenu to the position after he had exclusively been used as either a rotational right tackle or a blocking tight end over the first two games of his young career in the NFL.
The move to tackle was not Onwenu’s first. Originally playing on both the offensive and the defensive lines, he found a home at guard during his sophomore season at Michigan. While he did line up on the left side of the formation back for one game in 2017, he spent most of his time at the right guard position. He had not played tackle before the Patriots asked him to in training camp.
“The first few days it was kind of a surprise to me too but I went out there head-on first,” said Onwenu about the move. “After you kind of look at things in terms of the tackle aspect, all the plays you already know, so I’m just thinking the next guy over from me. It wasn’t really that much of a point where I felt confident because I knew all of the stuff in terms of all that, but it was just me playing the other position more so than the person next to me.”
The big-bodied Onwenu — he was measured at 6-foot-3, 344 pounds at the Scouting Combine in February — showed plenty of promise at right tackle. Accordingly, the team turned his way when it came to moving pieces around after Andrews was sent to IR.
Just like Joe Thuney, the 22-year-old also impressed in his new job. Onwenu looked comfortable lining up at left guard, and actually finished Sunday’s game as the Patriots’ highest-rated player on offense, according to Pro Football Focus.
“Mike’s done a good job,” said Bill Belichick about the rookie. “He’s a smart kid, he learns quickly and he played right guard at Michigan — he’s played that some, but he’s played the other two more. His ability to adapt and adjust his footwork based on whether he’s playing tackle or playing on the left side of the line and all that has been pretty impressive. But, we’ve had a lot of guys that have played well at a new position.
“Thuney at guard, [Logan] Mankins at guard, even [Nate] Solder his rookie year really played right tackle and played some tight end. It just depends really on what we need and what the best combination of players are to get to that. But, Mike’s done a good job. Day after day, he’s just impressive. His consistency is impressive. He’s a very strong player with good feet, good balance and likes football and understands football. Things come pretty easily to him in terms of instinctively on the field.”
With the Patriots’ biggest challenge to date awaiting on Sunday — the team will travel to Kansas City to take on the 3-0 Chiefs — the Patriots will need more of the same from Onwenu, Thuney and the rest of the blockers up front. And while Thuney has already proven himself as one of the top interior offensive linemen in all of football, Onwenu is still relatively green and in the process of getting used to the pro game.
Belichick, however, has shown plenty of confidence in the 182nd pick of this year’s draft.
“Obviously, our system is not the easiest system to learn at any position, but just instinctively when he has to make a decision, he has to decide how quickly to combo to level two, what angle to take to block down on the guy, so forth. He just does a lot of little things well and does them right,” he said. “He’s done a good job for us.”
Onwenu and Thuney continuing to do a good job will be crucial for the Patriots against the Chiefs. After all, the offense will likely again rely on its running game to control the tempo of the game.