It didn’t take long for Patriots rookie offensive lineman Michael Onwenu to become a cult hero in New England.
What “Big Mike” has accomplished in just three weeks is impressive, and in some ways, unprecedented.
Onwenu, who’s listed at 6-foot-3, exclusively played guard — mostly on the right side — at the University of Michigan. The Patriots moved him around in training camp, and the 2020 sixth-round pick began his NFL career as a rotational right tackle and jumbo tight end.
When center David Andrews hit injured reserve with a broken hand, starting left guard Joe Thuney moved over to center, and Onwenu swapped positions and sides of the line to fill in at left guard. He leads all Patriots rookies through three weeks with 136 total snaps
“Back to the virtual offseason and those meetings, I thought he did a really nice job of picking up our system and learning it.” Patriots co-offensive line coach Cole Popovich said Tuesday. “You could tell he was really putting in the time to learn it, so conceptually, he understood pretty well what was going on around him. Not just one position, and once we got here the way he worked in the drill work, you just see some things and question could this guy do this or not? Give him some one-on-one reps, then started getting some team reps and it kind of builds from there. If you want to point to anything it’s probably the work ethic that he has. That’s probably the No. 1 thing that we saw early on.”
PFF graded Onwenu as the Patriots’ highest-rated offensive player Week 3 against the Las Vegas Raiders. He allowed just one pressure in the win and is graded as PFF‘s second-ranked guard through three games.
“Mike’s shown a lot of versatility,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said Monday. “He played right guard at Michigan, and that’s pretty much the only spot he played. Here, he’s worked both guards and worked at right tackle, and right tackle was a new position for him. Left guard, even though guard is guard, footwork is all different over there where he played yesterday for Joe. It’s kind of like playing left-handed when you’ve been playing right-handed your whole life.
“I think he’s done a really good job. He’s a smart kid, he’s got a lot of physical playing strength, he’s a good athlete, he’s got good football smarts and awareness and he’s done a good job for us, playing right tackle and then yesterday at guard he handled some good situations. He learned a lot and he’s still got a long way to go but did a lot of good things.”
When asked, Popovich couldn’t recall another player who exclusively played guard in college then switched over to offensive tackle in the NFL. Indianapolis Colts right tackle Braden Smith mostly played guard at Auburn, but he did have some experience at left and right tackle. Former Patriots offensive lineman Damien Woody was a center at Boston College then went on to play center, guard and tackle in the NFL.
So, what did the Patriots see from Onwenu to try to move him outside to tackle?
“I think with all the young guys, when they’re in camp and we’re shuffling guys around and trying to evaluate guys through drill work and one-on-ones and you start to see something and you go, ‘Maybe this guy could do this’ and give an opportunity,” Popovich said. “And he did OK, so he got some right tackle reps.”
It will be interesting to see how the Patriots adjust when Andrews returns off of IR if Onwenu continues to play at a high level. New England will likely shift Thuney back to left guard. Onwenu and Jermaine Eluemunor could continue rotating at right tackle unless one of those players declares themselves as the top option. It’s unlikely, but the Patriots also could move Thuney to right tackle and have Onwenu continue playing left guard.
New England hasn’t gotten a ton out of its 2020 draft class so far. Safety Kyle Dugger (107 snaps), the team’s top pick, has carved out a role on defense as a safety/linebacker hybrid. Linebacker Josh Uche and tight end Dalton Keene have yet to make their NFL debuts. Kicker Justin Rohrwasser is on the practice squad. Tight end Devin Asiasi (49 snaps), linebackers Anfernee Jennings (11 snaps) and Cassh Maluia (19 snaps) and offensive lineman Justin Herron (21 snaps) have played as reserves. Center Dustin Woodard, a seventh-round pick, retired this offseason. Running back J.J. Taylor, an undrafted rookie, has played 37 snaps and has 16 carries for 70 yards, one 4-yard catch, an 11-yard punt return and three kick returns for 69 yards.
Onwenu has been the Patriots’ top rookie so far. It seems New England has good luck taking players out of Michigan in the sixth round.