The New England Patriots entered the offseason with questions all over their offense. Among the biggest, both literally and figuratively, was the offensive tackle spot; the position group had struggled in 2022, especially on the right side.
Free agency saw the Patriots take a “throw it on the wall and see what sticks” approach. The team kept in-house free agents Conor McDermott and Yodny Cajuste, and added Riley Reiff and Calvin Anderson from the open market — seemingly building the framework for another developmental option getting added through the NFL Draft.
While that very well might have been the team’s intention, it did not materialize. The Patriots did draft three offensive linemen on Day 3, but all of them are interior players first.
With the spot opposite incumbent left tackle Trent Brown therefore seemingly left without a clear starter, post-draft speculation about Michael Onwenu started to arise: Could New England’s starting right guard move back to tackle?
Onwenu does have experience at the position, but such a move still seems unlikely. Just ask Patriots director of player personnel Matt Groh.
“A great thing about Mike is he came in here, did he what was asked about him,” Groh said after the third day of the draft. “But he’s really kind of settled in at guard. ... Looking forward to getting these guys in the mix and they are just going to have to come in here and compete with the rest of the crew, Mike and David [Andrews] and Cole [Strange] and all the other guys in the tackle position as well.”
Onwenu first arrived in New England as a sixth-round selection in the 2020 draft. He saw most of his snaps as a rookie at right tackle, and looked very promising. Nonetheless, he began his sophomore campaign at left guard. The team apparently did not feel comfortable keeping him there, however, and eventually relegated him to a backup role.
A year later, after trading Shaq Mason to Tampa Bay, the Patriots moved Onwenu again; this time he took over the vacant starting spot previously manned by Mason — the same position he had played at Michigan.
Onwenu performed at a high level in 2022, despite a revolving door to his right. The team could have addressed that issue by sending him to the tackle spot again, but it opted not to do so.
“We didn’t really ever anticipate playing him at tackle and then we got into a bind and put him out there and he played pretty well,” said Patriots head coach Bill Belichick last November. “I think he’s built to play guard, he’s comfortable playing guard, he’s got a really good skillset in there. That’s where we’d like to play him, for sure.”
The team’s messaging has been consistent ever since, and the additions of draft picks Jake Andrews, Sidy Sow and Atonio Mafi will likely not change that. What the future will hold for that trio and the upcoming free agent Onwenu remains to be seen, but for 2023 it looks like Cole Strange, David Andrews, and the man in question himself will hold down the fort along the interior offensive line yet again.
This would make sense, too. At least on paper, that position group is looking like one of the strongest on the Patriots’ roster and possibly even the entire league.