The New England Patriots’ right tackle position has been one of instability this year. Originally manned by veteran Marcus Cannon, it was vacated when the long-time starter and cancer survivor decided to opt out of the 2020 season over concerns about the Coronavirus. With Cannon unavailable, the Patriots turned to 2019 trade acquisition Jermaine Eluemunor to fill the void.
Eluemunor did just that through the first three weeks of the season, occasionally being rotated in and out of the lineup in favor of sixth-round rookie Michael Onwenu. When he missed the Patriots’ game in Kansas City in Week 4 due to a migraine, however, the team had to turn to another youngster to step into the role: Justin Herron, who was also selected in the sixth round of this year’s draft.
In Week 6 against the Denver Broncos, Eluemunor started once more but had to leave the game after suffering an ankle injury in the first quarter. Onwenu initially filled his role, before Herron took over in the second half. With the nominal starter now on injured reserve, however, the question becomes who will take over: Onwenu or Herron? The latter saw considerable action at the position over the last two games, but the choice still will likely come down to Onwenu. He has simply proven himself worthy of taking on the spot.
While still a rookie and therefore naturally prone to some growing pains, Onwenu has looked like an NFL-caliber lineman whenever he was on the field — all while being more consistent a blocker than Herron despite being moved all over the formation. His versatility has value from a contingency perspective, but his qualities as a potential starter cannot be denied either. This is especially true with both center David Andrews and right guard Shaq Mason nearing a return after stints on injured reserve and the Coronavirus reserve list, respectively.
Bill Belichick’s previous statements about Onwenu also reflect how highly the coaching staff is thinking of the 182nd selection in this year’s draft.
“He’s worked both guards and worked at right tackle, and right tackle was a new position for him,” the Patriots’ head coach said after his team’s win over the Las Vegas Raiders in Week 3. “Left guard, even though guard is guard, footwork is all different over there. ... It’s kind of like playing left handed when you’ve been playing right handed your whole life. I think he’s done a really good job.
“He’s a smart kid, he’s got a lot of physical playing strength, he’s a good athlete, he’s got good football smarts and awareness and he’s done a good job for us, playing right tackle and then yesterday at guard he handled some good situations. He learned a lot and he’s still got a long way to go, but he did a lot of good things.”
Belichick and the Patriots trusted Onwenu with a starting job after Andrews went down because of a broken thumb heading into Week 3. He first started at left guard before moving to right guard against the Chiefs and right tackle — at least for a few snaps — versus the Broncos. Given that he played well at all three positions, New England’s coaches should feel confident to insert him into Eluemunor’s former spot moving forward.
Whether or not the change will be permanent remains to be seen after Eluemunor hinted at a possible return in time for the Patriots’ Week 10 game against the Baltimore Ravens. Still, Onwenu has taken advantage of his opportunities no matter they shape they presented themselves in. Don’t be surprised if this one is more of the same for the promising rookie.