No position group on the New England Patriots’ roster saw more movement over the last two weeks than the interior defensive line. In-house free agents Lawrence Guy, Deatrich Wise Jr. and Carl Davis were all re-signed; Adam Butler left for Miami; three players — Davon Godchaux, Henry Anderson and Montravius Adams — were added from outside the organization.
Despite all of those moves, however, New England might still be in the market for additional help at the defensive tackle position. With the exception of Wise Jr. and a 31-year-old Guy, none of the players kept or added in free agency will be under contract beyond the 2022 season. Adding another long-term developmental player through the draft could therefore very well be on the Patriots’ to-do list next month.
One of the top players in this year’s draft class in this category is Washington’s Levi Onwuzurike. Let’s get to meet him.
Name: Levi Onwuzurike
Position: Interior defensive line
School: Washington (Redshirt Senior)
Opening day age: 23
2020 stats: N/A (Opt-out)
2019 stats: 12 games; 45 tackles (6.0 for loss); 2 sacks
Size: 6029, 290 lbs, 80 1/8” wingspan, 32 1/2” arm, 10 1/4” hand
Expected round: 2nd
Strengths: Onwuzurike has the makings of a three-down defender at the next level due to his intriguing blend of size and length, functional strength, technical foundation and smarts. He furthermore has shown that he can get up the field in a hurry, but also sit back and occupy his gaps versus the run.
As for his run defense, Onwuzurike is capable of reading his keys to recognize blocks, and uses his hands and wingspan well to create space between himself and the blockers in front of him. He has a good anchor versus the run and is able to stand his ground against man and zone looks.
Onwuzurike combines a great blend of hand power to jolt OLs and reset the line, creates separation with length and hands to make it easier to shed, recognizes blocks, bend to threaten edges and win with quickness. Has the full package as a run defender. Great fit. pic.twitter.com/t4w3EZrJE8— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) February 18, 2021
Onwuzurike also has proven himself a capable if sometimes on-off pass rusher. His bull rush — another proof of his upper-body strength — is impressive, while he also showed that he can add to his arsenal by incorporating swim and rip moves. His technique is already pretty advanced, while his quickness off the ball and ability to drive his legs make him a handful for interior offensive linemen.
The 23-year-old can push the pocket, and also is willing in pursuit on run plays and screen passes. His motor runs hot, and it shows.
Revisited ‘19 tape to refresh why @UW_Football DT Levi Onwuzurike was top-10 graded overall for 2021 Senior Bowl. @LeviOnw is an active & impactful do-it-all IDL that can play doubles and penetrate. Consistently creates for everyone around him. Stats don’t do him any justice. pic.twitter.com/R3u4ZMg1Vv— Jim Nagy (@JimNagy_SB) March 16, 2021
Weaknesses: The biggest issue with Onwuzurike entering the pro level is consistency. He has been running hot and cold as a pass rusher, and will need to improve at using counter moves to free himself once engaged. His balance also is not where it needs to be on a consistent basis, which causes him to get knocked off his spot from time to time.
Inconsistency also shows up when it comes to identifying run looks: for as solid a run defender as he already is Onwuzurike appears to be guessing at times — something that needs to get better versus NFL competition. The same also goes for tackling and his pad level; he has to play off his anchor rather than use his upper body strength to attack the blockers in front of him.
Why the Patriots? As noted above, the Patriots invested considerable resources in their interior defensive line over the course of the offseason but only two of the players (re-)signed are under contract beyond 2022. Onwuzurike would give New England a high-upside developmental option at the 3-4 end position, and possible successor to Lawrence Guy. His high floor would also allow him to get onto the field rather quickly as a rookie.
Why not the Patriots? Outside of the consistency issues mentioned above there is one main question about Onwuzurike when it comes to the Patriots: the scheme fit. He appears to be best suited to play in an even front, but New England’s offseason moves point towards more odd looks being incorporated in the future. In order to properly succeed in this environment, he might have to add more weight to his frame which in turn could impact his quickness at the snap.
What would be his role in New England in 2021? The Patriots will have a deep rotation along their defensive interior, which would allow Onwuzurike to be used in package-specific fashion. This would allow him to take advantage of his strengths while also give him time to grow into a more complete player (i.e. become more consistent and improve his pass rush).
What would be his role in New England beyond 2021? A likely second-round draft pick, Onwuzurike would be under contract for four years. With the first of those likely a build-up season to get acclimated to the NFL, he would be expected to see a bigger role from Year Two on. Eventually, he would take over for either Lawrence Guy or Henry Anderson to give the Patriots a high-upside end in their 3-4 looks.
Does he have positional versatility? Onwuzurike played primarily inside the guards at Washington and was employed in multiple techniques — 3, 2, 2i, 1, 0 — but his size might limit his effectiveness at the next level. At 290 pounds he is not well suited for a traditional early-down nose role in New England’s scheme, meaning that he would likely start off as a 3-technique end or 1-technique tackle, depending on the look. That said, he has experience being moving around and should be able to play a wide variety of roles as he becomes more comfortable going against pro-level competition.
What is his special teams value? Defensive tackles have somewhat limited kicking game value due to their size, but they can still have an impact. Onwuzurike proved that during Washington’s 2019 season, when he blocked a punt against Arizona. His length could be an asset at the next level as well, and he is projected to see some action on field goal/extra point blocking teams and in specific punt block situations.
Which current Patriots will he have to beat out? The Patriots currently have 11 interior defensive linemen on their roster, with four of them — Lawrence Guy, Davon Godchaux, Henry Anderson, Deatrich Wise Jr. — locks to make the roster. Onwuzurike would join them simply based on his projected Day Two draft status. When it comes for playing time, he would compete primarily against Guy, Anderson Wise Jr. and whoever else makes the team from the primary end group (Byron Cowart, Montravius Adams, Akeem Spence).
Verdict: The Patriots have bolstered their defensive line quite a bit in free agency, but adding more high-upside talent for the long haul would be a good move as well. Onwuzurike fits that mold well, even though he is a candidate to come off the board before New England is on the clock again in the second round. If he is available at No. 46 or within a reasonable trade-up range, however, he certainly could be a target.