With training camp underway, the New England Patriots are fully “on to 2021.”
The team currently has 91 players under contract, but only 53 of them will be able to survive roster cutdowns in August and September and ultimately make the active team. Over the course of spring and summer, just like we have in years past, we are taking a look at the players fighting for those spots to find out who has the best chances of helping the Patriots bounce back from what was a disappointing 7-9 season last year.
Today, the series continues with offensive lineman Michael Onwenu.
Name: Michael Onwenu
Position: Guard/Offensive tackle
Jersey number: 71
Opening day age: 23
Size: 6-foot-3, 350 pounds
Contract status: Under contract through 2023 (2024 UFA)
What is his experience? Onwenu joined the NFL as a sixth-round draft selection by the Patriots in 2020. Despite his draft status and what was a challenging offseason for rookie players due to the Coronavirus pandemic, however, he was able to carve out a prominent role in his first year as a pro: Onwenu appeared in all 16 of New England’s games during the 2020 season, establishing himself as a starter at the right tackle position down the stretch — a position he did not play during his college career at the University of Michigan.
Arriving in Ann Arbor in 2016, Onwenu first played on both the offensive and the defensive lines before carving out a starting role as the team’s right guard during his sophomore campaign. He held the position throughout the next three years as well. All in all, he started 34 games at the position with one additional start coming at left guard. Along the way, Onwenu proved himself a strong pass blocker whose size and power stood out. Accordingly, he was named third-team All-Big Ten in both 2018 and 2019.
What did his 2020 season look like? Onwenu had to wait until the 182nd pick in the 2020 NFL Draft to hear his name called; the Patriots selected him with one of their sixth-round choices to add him to what was a deep offensive line. Starting right tackle Marcus Cannon’s Coronavirus opt-out before training camp changed the composition of the group, however, and prompted the New England coaching staff to give Onwenu practice reps at an unfamiliar spot; he had never lined up at right tackle during his time at Michigan.
Despite that and the fact that he did not enjoy a traditional offseason due to the league’s Covid-19 restrictions, Onwenu started his first NFL regular season in a rotation with fellow right tackle Jermaine Eluemunor. He began the season moving in an out of the lineup, and also playing as a sixth lineman at time, before his first start in Week 3 against the Las Vegas Raiders: with starting left guard Joe Thuney moving to center following a David Andrews hand injury, Onwenu was inserted into the starting group at Thuney’s old spot.
One week after his debut as a member of the starting lineup, Onwenu made his second start versus the Kansas City Chiefs; this time, however, he lined up at right guard in place of an injured Shaq Mason. Two weeks later, he played all three of his previous positions in the same game before eventually settling into the right tackle position after an ankle injury suffered by Eluemunor. From that point on, the youngster would not look back and become an integral part of New England’s offensive line.
Onwenu appeared in all 16 of the Patriots’ games during the 2020 season, being listed as a starter in every one of them. In total, he was on the field for 927 of a possible 1,011 offensive snaps (91.7%) moving between his primary position of right tackle (616 snaps; 66.5%) as well as the right guard (185; 20%), left guard (112; 12.1%) and in-line tight end spots (14; 1.5%). Along the way, he proved himself as one of the best rookie performers in the league — a powerful presence as both a run blocker and a pass protector.
While he did have some growing pains, he was able to move bodies in the running game and also held his own when asked to pass-block: Onwenu surrendered a mere 13 quarterback disruptions during the season; he gave up 3 sacks as well as 2 quarterback hits and 8 hurries. All in all and considering the circumstances outlined above, Onwenu’s rookie campaign was one of the most impressive in recent Patriots history.
What is his projected role? Even though Onwenu spent most of his time during the 2020 season as New England’s starting right tackle, the expectation is that he will slide into the left guard spot vacated by Joe Thuney’s free agency departure. His positional flexibility is obviously a plus, but the ideal scenario for Onwenu is to have him spend his entire sophomore season in Thuney’s old spot while rarely ever leaving the field.
What is his special teams value? As is the case with other offensive linemen throughout the league, Onwenu’s special teams value is comparatively limited given his size and athletic profile. That being said, he will likely be used in the same capacity as last season: Onwenu was a member of the Patriots’ field goal and extra point protection units — lining up on the right side of the line — and as such played 61 of a possible 399 kicking game snaps (15.3%) in 2020.
Does he have positional versatility? Even though Onwenu’s versatility was seen as limited entering the NFL, he proved himself an immensely flexible player. As noted above, he saw considerable playing time at both guard positions and at right tackle during his rookie season. While the Patriots will want him to play left guard in 2020 and only leave the position if need be, he theoretically can line up all over the formation.
What is his salary cap situation? Based on his outlook for the 2021 season, Onwenu is one of the biggest bargains on New England’s roster. Entering the second year of his rookie contract, he is slated to play on a salary cap hit of only $830,617 — a number that does not qualify him for Top-51 status, meaning that he is currently only counting $50,617 (his signing bonus proration) versus the Patriots’ cap. He will only hit the books with the full number once the Top-51 rule is lifted at the start of the regular season.
What is his roster outlook? Coming off an outstanding rookie season, Onwenu is a lock to make the Patriots’ roster this season and the frontrunner to take over as New England’s starting left guard. The main question is how he will develop in his new position. He does have plenty of experience playing at guard from his time at Michigan, and he also spent quite a few snaps last year on the interior. However, his chemistry with center David Andrews and left tackle Isaiah Wynn has yet to develop.