With training camp already underway, the New England Patriots have fully set their sights onto the upcoming 2022 season.
The team currently has 87 players under contract, but only 53 of them will be able to survive roster cutdowns in early September and ultimately make the active team. Over the course of spring and summer, just like we have in years past, we will take a look at the men fighting for those spots to find out who has the best chances of helping the Patriots build on their 10-7 record.
Today, the series continues with third-year offensive lineman Michael Onwenu.
Name: Michael Onwenu
Position: Guard/Offensive tackle
Jersey number: 71
Opening day age: 24
Size: 6-foot-3, 350 pounds
Contract status: Under contract through 2023 (2024 UFA)
What is his experience? Onwenu joined the NFL in 2020 as a sixth-round draft selection out of Michigan. Arriving in Ann Arbor in 2016, he 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 and started 34 games, with one additional start coming at left guard. Along the way, Onwenu was named third-team All-Big Ten in both 2018 and 2019.
Despite his accolades and developmental upside, he had to wait until the 182nd pick of the draft to hear his name called. Onwenu eventually joined the Patriots, where he was able to carve out a prominent role right away. Serving as a part-time starter at both right tackle — a position he did not play during his college career — and right guard over the last two years, he appeared in a combined 33 regular season and playoff games since arriving in New England. Of those 33 games, 24 saw Onwenu as part of the starting lineup.
What did his 2021 season look like? Onwenu was a jack of all trades for the Patriots during his 2020 rookie campaign, seeing regular action at both guard spots and in-line tight end. The majority of his snaps came at right tackle, though, and he looked very serviceable at the position despite his lack of experience playing it. New England, however, saw his future elsewhere: the team traded for veteran Trent Brown to take over at right tackle, moving Onwenu back to the interior to succeed free agency departee Joe Thuney at left guard.
Onwenu did just that, and opened the season in Thuney’s old spot. He performed well the first three weeks, but midway through Week 4’s loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers suddenly left the lineup in favor of Ted Karras. Onwenu then had to sit out the following contest because of Covid-19; when he returned in Week 6 versus the Dallas Cowboys, Karras remained at left guard with him sliding into the right tackle spot that had originally been vacated when Brown went down with a lingering calf issue early in the season opener.
Onwenu started the next three games at right tackle, but Brown’s return in Week 10 forced him to move again — this time to the bench. The Patriots went with Karras at left guard and Brown in his original spot, leaving Onwenu to serve backup duty and as an occasional blocking tight end (something he did quite effectively during New England’s victory over the Buffalo Bills in Week 13, for example). As a result, he played only 161 offensive snaps during the final nine games of the season.
In total, the sophomore lineman was on the field for 657 of 1,169 offensive snaps during the season — a playing time share of 56.2 percent. Given his pre-season projection that number is a disappointing one, especially given that Onwenu appeared to look good while on the field. He surrendered just 11 quarterback disruptions throughout the entire year, including a pair of sacks, and also performed at a generally high level as a run blocker. Nonetheless, the Patriots did not find a spot for him in the starting lineup down the stretch.
As a result, his positional usage chart reads a lot like the one from the previous year. Onwenu spent most of his snaps at left guard (290) but he also spent significant time at the right tackle spot (276). He also returned to his old college position at right guard for a pair of snaps in Week 10 versus the Cleveland Browns. At the end of the day, he failed to live up to the expectations of becoming a long-term answer at Thuney’s former spot. However, Onwenu was as good and valuable a rotational lineman as any in football.
What is his projected role? Even though Onwenu spent most of his career so far at either the right tackle or left guard spots, he will man a different one in 2022. With Shaq Mason traded to Tampa Bay earlier this offseason, the 24-year-old will take over as New England’s right tackle — lining up between center David Andrews and new right tackle Isaiah Wynn. Ideally, Onwenu will hold onto this gig throughout the season this time and rarely ever leave the field.
Does he have positional versatility? Even though Onwenu’s versatility was seen as limited entering the NFL, he proved himself an immensely flexible player since turning pro. As noted above, he saw considerable playing time at both guard positions and at right tackle during his rookie and sophomore campaigns. While the Patriots want him to play right guard in 2022, he theoretically can line up all over the formation in case a need arises elsewhere.
What is his special teams value? As is the case with other offensive linemen throughout the league, Onwenu’s special teams value is rather limited given his size and athletic profile. That being said, he will likely be used in the same capacity as the last two seasons: Onwenu was a member of the Patriots’ field goal and extra point protection units in both 2020 and 2021 — lining up primarily on the right end of the line — and as such played 145 of a possible 863 kicking game snaps (16.8%) along the way.
What is his salary cap situation? Entering the penultimate season of his four-year rookie contract, Onwenu is carrying a salary cap number of $945,617 that consists of a $895,000 base salary as well as a fully-guaranteed $50,617 signing bonus proration. At the moment, Onwenu’s cap hit does not qualify for Top-51 status, meaning that only his guarantees are currently counting against New England’s books; the base salary will not be added until he finds himself on the 53-man roster come the regular season or jumps into the Top-51 after one of the roster cuts until then.
How safe is his roster spot? The Patriots did not find a consistent spot in the starting lineup for Onwenu last season, and also gave free agency addition Arlington Hambright some starter-level reps in his place in practice. Nonetheless, there is little doubt about Onwenu’s status heading towards the 2022 regular season: not only will he make the team but serve as New England’s starting right guard. He has pretty big shoes to fill — Shaq Mason was one of the best players in the NFL at his position — but the team apparently feels confident in his outlook.
One-sentence projection: As opposed to last year, Onwenu will hold onto his starting spot throughout the season.