FOXBORO, Mass. — Those clamoring for a Mike Onwenu move to right tackle appear to be getting their wish.
After using Onwenu exclusively at left guard during the first five weeks of the season, the New England Patriots subbed him in at right tackle in Sunday’s overtime loss to the Dallas Cowboys and appear to be keeping him there, based on the brief portions of practice reporters have been permitted to watch this week.
If that setup holds for this Sunday’s matchup with the New York Jets, Onwenu would become the fifth Patriots player to start at right tackle in seven games this season, joining Trent Brown, Justin Herron, Yasir Durant and Yodny Cajuste.
Brown has not played since suffering a calf injury on the opening drive of the season, and Herron, Durant and Cajuste all have been benched at least once in his stead. The Patriots have been reluctant to move Onwenu out of his guard spot — where he replaced departed free agent Joe Thuney — but he excelled at right tackle as a sixth-round rookie last season and played well there in relief against Dallas.
After replacing starter Cajuste, Onwenu allowed one pressure in 17 pass-blocking snaps, according to Pro Football Focus, and was New England’s second-highest-graded run blocker behind center David Andrews. He played a total of 43 offensive snaps following a weeklong stint on the reserve/COVID-19 list.
“Mike’s one of our best offensive linemen,” head coach Bill Belichick said this week. “I thought he stepped in there, and we did what we felt was best for us in that game. I thought he gave us great effort.”
Assuming Onwenu does start at right tackle, expect Ted Karras to remain in the starting lineup at guard. Karras, who’s surrendered just one pressure in 83 pass-blocking snaps this season, likely would start in Onwenu’s usual position if right guard Shaq Mason is cleared to play. If Mason remains out (he’s missed the last two games with an abdomen injury), we’ll likely see the same interior alignment for a third straight week, with James Ferentz at left guard, Andrews at center and Karras at right guard.
A starting five of Isaiah Wynn, Karras, Andrews, Mason and Onwenu would allow the Patriots to put their five best offensive linemen on the field together, at least while Brown remains on injured reserve. Brown could return as early as next week, at which point the Patriots would have another decision to make: Would they consider shifting the 6-foot-8 people-mover to left tackle and benching Wynn, who’s off to the worst start of his NFL career?
The Patriots picked up Wynn’s fifth-year option for 2022, guaranteeing him a $10 million salary next season, but he’s struggled this season, both before and after a lengthy stay on the COVID list that cost him two weeks of practice. Brown’s mostly played right tackle throughout his career but started every game on the left side for the 2018 Patriots team that won the Super Bowl.
New England’s offensive line as a whole has looked better in recent weeks, but keeping rookie quarterback Mac Jones upright remains an issue for this unit. Cowboys edge rusher Randy Gregory sacked Jones twice last Sunday, including one particularly explosive hit that caused a fumble.
The Patriots have benched at least one O-lineman in five of their six games this season. This would be their fifth different starting O-line combination.