There is a case to be made that Michael Onwenu’s rookie season with the New England Patriots ranks among the most impressive in recent memory. Joining the NFL as a sixth-round draft pick and without the benefits of a real offseason, Onwenu did not just make the roster but earn a starting role on one of the best offensive lines in the league — all while moving between positions and seeing regular snaps at one he has not played in college.
The youngster had his rookie growing pains, but they were far and few in between. Considering the circumstances, Onwenu’s first season as a pro was a very good one; one that would have been worthy of Offensive Rookie of the Year consideration if not for the under-the-radar position he is playing.
For as successful as his rookie season was, there is one person not interested in singing Onwenu’s praises just yet: the 23-year-old himself.
Asked to grade his first NFL campaign following Tuesday’s training camp practice, he was rather self-critical.
“I probably had a ‘C,’” Onwenu said. “I mean, it was a lot I messed up on. I’m trying to take in everything and trying to learn everything.”
While he earned All-Rookie honors from various media outlets, Onwenu himself has quite a different look on his performance as a rookie. So, what is the reasoning behind the comparatively low grade he would give himself?
“Just a lot of stuff,” he explained. “I mean a lot of the time, I was nervous being in high stakes moment or just playing for the first time. So I mean, not necessarily not believing in myself, but just being sure of myself and knowing I know the answer is just about doing it.”
Despite those moments of inconsistency, Onwenu performed on a high level throughout the 2020 season.
The Michigan product appeared in all 16 of the Patriots’ games, 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 while moving between his primary position of right tackle as well as both guard positions and the in-line tight end spot.
Onwenu, who aligned exclusively along the interior offensive line during his time in Ann Arbor, proved himself as one of the best rookie performers in the league along the way. He was a powerful and durable presence as both a run blocker and a pass protector.
Now heading into his second season as a Patriot, the goal is to keep building on his foundation. Having a normal offseason again should help him do just that.
“We get to do a lot of stuff that we didn’t do last year, so it’s been good to get those experiences. But, I mean, it’s been good doing it in person,” Onwenu said. “Last year, watching film through Zoom feels a little hard. But, watching it in person, you get to talk to the guy next to you and pick their brain in person. That’s a good feeling.”
As Onwenu pointed out, however, in-person learning is not the only part of his job positively impacting his growth as a player.
“The playbook is your best friend. That’s the best way to learn. And to ask questions,” he said.
Entering Year 2, Onwenu will experience more change. Not only is he able to work alongside his teammates again after last year’s unconventional offseason, he also will have a set position entering the season: with starting left guard Joe Thuney having left New England in free agency, the expectation is that Onwenu will slide into his former position and continue to play a critical role for the Patriots’ offensive line.