If you had to pick the most unlikely starter on the New England Patriots’ roster, you might start with rookie offensive lineman Michael Onwenu.
The Michigan product was a sixth-round pick who’s switching positions in the NFL without the aid of rookie minicamp, organized team activities, minicamp and preseason games. Against all odds, Onwenu is pushing starting right tackle Jermaine Eluemunor for a starting job in Week 3.
Onwenu played 29 total offensive snaps Sunday night, including the Patriots’ final 17 plays. The rookie played right tackle on 15 of those final 17 plays, and he slid over to tight end in New Englan’s double jumbo formation twice while Eluemunor re-entered the game at right tackle.
There are three possible reasons why Onwenu was playing over Elumunor on the Patriots’ final two drives: Eluemunor was hurt, winded or benched.
It seems unlikely that Eluemunor was seriously injured. He finished the Patriots’ third-to-last offensive drive, and he came into the game for double jumbo snaps on the final plays of each ensuing offensive series.
It’s possible that Eluemunor was sidelined over conditioning concerns. He did miss two blocks on New England’s third-to-last drive. Throughout his entire career, Eluemunor has only played more than 50 snaps in a game three times prior to Week 2, when he was on the field for 51 snaps. The Patriots rotated at right tackle in Week 1 when Eluemunor played 48 snaps to Onwenu’s 22.
The missed blocks on Eluemunor’s final full drive weren’t game-breaking plays, but perhaps it was enough for New England to want to give Onwenu a shot on the next two series’.
The Patriots averaged 9 yards per play when Onwenu was on the field without Eluemunor and 6.6 yards per play when Eluemunor was on the field without Onwenu in Week 2. They averaged 8 yards per run when Onwenu was on the field without Eluemunor and 2.1 yards per carry when Eluemunor was on the field without Onwenu. They averaged 9.2 yards per passing play when Onwenu was on the field without Eluemunor and when Eluemunor was on the field without Onwenu.
Overall, there’s not a striking difference in efficiency depending on who is playing right tackle through two weeks.
Overall: 6.2 yards per play, 8 yards per passing play, 4.2 yards per rush
With Onwenu: 5.4 yards per play, 7 yards per pass, 3.8 yards per carry
With Eluemumor: 6.1 yards per play, 8.3 yards per pass, 4.3 yards per carry
Onwenu without Eluemumor: 6.5 yards per play, 7.3 yards per pass, 4.9 yards per carry
Eluemunor without Onwenu: 6.6 yards per play, 8.5 yards per pass, 4.7 yards per carry
Both on field: 2.6 yards per play, 1 yards per pass, 2.8 yards per carry
Onwenu without Eluemunor Week 2: 9 yards per play, 9.2 yards per pass, 8 yards per carry
Eluemunor without Onwenu Week 2: 6.6 yards per paly, 9.2 yards per pass, 2.1 yards per carry
It’s possible the Patriots view Onwenu as a better pass blocker, however. New England was going to be forced to go pass-heavy on its final two drives, so that could be a reason why Onwenu was on the field instead of Eluemunor. Onwenu only allowed 12 total pressures in his final two seasons at Michigan. Onwenu and Eluemunor have each allowed just one pressure this season.
Onwenu deserves credit for his surprising amount of playing time thus far. As a sixth-round draft pick, he leads Patriots rookies in offensive snaps with 51. Only top pick Kyle Dugger, who has 45 defensive snaps and 22 on special teams, has played more as a rookie than Onwenu through two weeks.
Onwenu played right guard at Michigan and hadn’t played tackle since high school. It’s fairly common for a college offensive tackle to move to guard. Patriots left guard Joe Thuney and six-time All-Pro Logan Mankins are notable examples. It’s extremely rare and nearly unheard of for a player to move from college guard to NFL offensive tackle.
At 6-foot-3, Onwenu doesn’t have prototypical height for an NFL offensive tackle, but neither does 6-foot-2 left tackle Isaiah Wynn nor Eluemunor, who stands 6-foot-4. Onwenu does have 34 3/8-inch arms and an 82-inch wingspan compared to Eluemunor’s 33 1/4-inch arms and 79 1/4-inch wingspan, however.
Onwenu, who is listed at 350 pounds, and Eluemunor, who is listed at 335 pounds, are the two heaviest players on the Patriots’ current roster. We’ll find out Sunday at 1 p.m. ET if Onwenu has done enough to pass Eluemunor on the depth chart or if the Patriots continue to rotate the two big offensive linemen.
It’s also possible that both players could start since center David Andrews missed practice Wednesday with a hand injury. The Patriots’ options are to move Joe Thuney to center and start Onwenu at left guard or do a 1-for-1 replacement with Hjalte Froholdt for Andrews.
Thumbnail photo via Brian Fluharty/USA TODAY Sports Images