Shake off that Thanksgiving hangover. Heat up some leftovers. It’s New England Patriots mailbag time.
Let’s get right to it:
What’s the deal with Mike Onwenu? Sophomore slump? Coaches doghouse? Thought he was an up-and-coming pro bowler last season.
I think Ownenu will be a long-term starter in New England. But right now, the coaching staff clearly views Trent Brown as a better option at right tackle and Ted Karras as a better option at left guard. That’s turned Onwenu into a starting-caliber player without a starting spot. When everyone’s healthy, he’s the sixth man.
“Mike is a high-character guy, and he’s a damn good football player,” offensive line coach Carmen Bricillo said this week. “It’s a good problem to have multiple players in your room that have played and helped you win games.”
Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said after Onwenu’s initial demotion — which coincided with Brown’s long-awaited return from injured reserve — that the 2020 sixth-round draft pick “will obviously be a factor for us as we go forward.” And Onwenu still brings considerable value to the Patriots’ offense.
Lately, they’ve been deploying the 6-foot-3, 350-pounder as a jumbo tight end, often alongside the 6-8, 380-pound Brown. Add in standout run blocker Shaq Mason at right guard and fullback Jakob Johnson in the backfield, and that’s been an ideal rushing platform for New England’s stable of hard-charging ball-carriers.
In last Thursday’s shutout win over the Atlanta Falcons, the Patriots tallied 104 of their 134 rushing yards on runs to the right side, per Pro Football Focus.
“When (Onwenu) lines up next to Trent, it’s something to see, for sure,” tight end Hunter Henry said Wednesday. “With Shaq, Trent and Mike? My goodness. … I feel bad for the guys on the other side.”
We also might see Onwenu back in the starting lineup this week. Brown’s lingering calf injury kept him out of practice Thursday, raising questions about his availability for Sunday’s blockbuster AFC matchup against the Tennessee Titans at Gillette Stadium. If Brown can’t go, expect Onwenu to slot back in at right tackle.
Will the Patriots try to pick up any of the recently released running backs?
I doubt it. I think they’re satisfied with their top tandem of Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson — who’ve taken turns stiff-arming and bulldozing defenders in recent weeks — plus Brandon Bolden in James White’s usual third-down role and J.J. Taylor in reserve. That group’s been extremely productive of late, with the Patriots averaging the third-most rushing yards in the NFL (151.8 per game) during their current five-game win streak.
It’s worth noting, though, that Harris (neck) and Stevenson (knee) were added to the injury report this week, so it’s unclear if both will be available for Sunday. The Patriots made do without an injured Harris in their Week 10 win over the Cleveland Browns, with Stevenson accounting for 100 of their season-high 184 rushing yards in that one.
I believe the Patriots are the most physical team in football. Do you agree
It’s hard to quantify physicality, so I can’t definitively say whether the Patriots lead the league in that category. But they have to be at or near the top. That’s what the entire identity of this year’s team is built on: pushing opponents around with a bruising run game and dominating the line of scrimmage on defense.
We mentioned the Patriots’ run-first approach and liberal use of heavy personnel packages (Johnson has played at least 34% of offensive snaps in five of the last six games). On defense, their deep, versatile front seven has been bullying opposing O-lines and causing havoc in the backfield. Safety Devin McCourty noted last week that a large portion of New England’s NFL-leading 18 interceptions have come while the quarterback was being hit or pressured.
This brawny, relentless, wear-you-down style — “grown-man football,” as center David Andrews recently called it — should serve the Patriots in the cold-weather months to come, especially against opponents who lean more on finesse.
“We’ve got a physical football team,” Andrews said after the Atlanta game. “We’ve got to rely on that.”
Likelihood of a patriots bucs Super Bowl?
High, according to the folks over at Football Outsiders. In fact, their models this week ranked Patriots versus Buccaneers as the most likely Super Bowl LVI matchup.
Obviously, that would be a gigantic story — Tom Brady’s return to Foxboro multiplied by 100. And though most would view the Bucs as a stronger championship contender than the Patriots, both teams entered Week 12 as the No. 3 seeds in their respective conferences, with New England sitting at 7-4 and Tampa Bay at 7-3. (The Buffalo Bills’ Thanksgiving win over the New Orleans Saints bumped the Pats out of that spot for the time being.)
Football Outsiders’ analytics actually consider the Patriots the No. 1 Super Bowl favorite through 11 weeks, but this Sunday’s Titans game has massive playoff implications.
As of earlier this week, the Patriots — who hung with Brady’s Bucs in Week 4 before losing a 19-17 squeaker — were included in four of Football Outsiders’ five most likely Super Bowl matchups.
What will the cap situation look like for the Pats next year?
According to Spotrac, they currently have $32,237,007 in projected salary cap space for the 2022 season, which ranks 20th in the NFL. First-year Patriots veterans Matthew Judon, Nelson Agholor, Henry and Jonnu Smith all will have cap hits upward of $13.75 million, and Davon Godchaux will be at $10.25 million. (Before you ask, the Patriots can’t cut Agholor or Smith, who have underperformed this season, without absorbing enormous dead cap charges.)
New England also has a slew of notable names set to hit unrestricted free agency, including five defensive starters (cornerback J.C. Jackson, safeties McCourty and Adrian Phillips, and linebackers Dont’a Hightower and Ja’Whaun Bentley), two starting O-linemen in Brown and Karras, running backs White and Bolden, kicker Nick Folk and special teams captain Matthew Slater.
Wide receivers Jakobi Meyers and Gunner Olszewski are among the Patriots’ impending restricted free agents, as is Johnson.
Will there be a new uni next year
As long as the NFL sticks to its plan to ditch the one-helmet rule after this season, I would be very surprised if the Pat Patriot throwbacks didn’t make a comeback in 2022. The team has all but confirmed those will return as soon as the league allows it. I agree with the complaints that the Patriots’ current uniform set is too bland, so the old reds would be a welcome addition.
Who on the team would fare best in an MMA fight?
Love that question. The first player who comes to mind is rookie defensive tackle Christian Barmore. There’s some real violence in his game. He’s my pick for the heavyweight division. I’d also like Kyle Dugger’s chances in the octagon. The second-year safety is a big-time hitter and might be the Patriots’ best pound-for-pound athlete.