With starting right tackle Marcus Cannon deciding to exercise the Coronavirus opt-out clause, the New England Patriots were forced to adapt along their offensive line heading into the 2020 season. They initially turned to veteran Jermaine Eluemunor, who took over the top spot in training camp and never looked back. During the season opener versus the Miami Dolphins, however, Eluemunor was part of a two-man rotation at the position.
The other player to take snaps at right tackle? Rookie Michael Onwenu. Seeing the sixth-round draft selection in this role was quite a surprise considering his lack of experience at the position — he spent his college career at Michigan playing at guard (and even along the defensive line) — and the difficult circumstances the pandemic created for first-year players entering the league.
Onwenu performed admirably in the rotational role, and unbeknownst at the time kicked off one of the best rookie seasons New England has seen in recent memory — one that was now recognized by Pro Football Focus. The advanced analytics website published its 2020 All-Rookie team earlier this week, and Onwenu is part of it as the starter at the right tackle position.
PFF’s Ben Linsey had to say the following about him:
T Michael Onwenu, New England Patriots
Onwenu ended up settling in and starting 12 games at right tackle for the Patriots this year, but he started games at both left guard and right guard, as well. Not only did he start at three different positions, but Onwenu also earned PFF grades of 79.0 or higher at each of left guard (83.5), right guard (79.7) and right tackle (79.2) on 100-plus snaps. That kind of versatility and high-level play across multiple positions is rare for any offensive lineman, let alone a rookie.
Onwenu was solid in pass protection, but he really made his mark as a run-blocker on a New England team that skewed very run-heavy this season. He earned one of the highest run-blocking grades of any tackle in the league this season on gap runs.
Onwenu joined the Patriots as the 182nd overall draft pick last April, and was originally expected to serve as the number three guard behind starters Joe Thuney and Shaq Mason. While he did end up starting four games on the interior, the bulk of his work — i.e. 616 of his 926 total offensive snaps — came at right tackle. At that position, the 23-year-old proved himself a starting-caliber player at the NFL level.
The question now becomes whether or not his future in the league does lie at tackle, or rather inside. The Patriots, after all, do have some questions at both spots.
Marcus Cannon, for example, is scheduled to return off the Covid-19 opt-out list but at age 32 and with a salary cap hit of $9.6 million very much appears to be a candidate to be let go by the club. The Patriots have other candidates to fill this hypothetical open spot in Eluemunor (if re-signed via free agency) and fellow sixth-round rookie Justin Herron, but Onwenu proved himself the best of the bunch this season.
Not much is expected to change in this regard heading into 2021. However, Joe Thuney’s impending free agency could alter the outlook quite a bit. If the ultra-reliable starting left guard leaves New England to a record-breaking free agency deal, the club would have to fill a big spot with no clear successor in place. The one option that could slide in and still allow the Patriots to keep their top-five offensive linemen on the field is Onwenu.
It remains to be seen whether that or any other scenario is realistic, but we do know two things heading into the offseason: Onwenu’s versatility is a valuable asset for the Patriots, and he has been one of the steals of the draft so far.