For more than two decades, the New England Patriots have prioritized consistency, and even excellence, along both the offensive and defensive lines. The team’s six Super Bowl championships during head coach Bill Belichick’s tenure are sufficient evidence of the team’s prioritization of stout performance by their linemen.
Despite losing arguably their best offensive lineman via free agency, the Pats 2021 offensive line projects to be one of the best in the NFL this season.
Sophomore sensation Michael Onwenu is a primary reason for that.
Onwenu was selected by the Patriots in the sixth round of the 2020 NFL draft. During his time at the University of Michigan, he primarily lined up at right guard. Still, Onwenu's versatility became quite evident during training camp. As such, he made New Egland’s 53-man roster, sharing snaps at offensive tackle with veteran Jermaine Eluemunor. By Week 5, Onwenu had earned his spot as New England’s starting right tackle
At nearly 6-4 and weighing 350 pounds, Onwenu is a massive lineman with excellent length. Even as a rookie, he demonstrated the ability to overwhelm defenders in the run game, while anchoring well to protecting the passer. It is a rare occasion on which he is easily bypassed by a pass rusher.
Per Pro Football Focus (PFF), Onwenu allowed a pressure on just 2.9 percent of all pass protection snaps. He ranked fifth out of all the league’s offensive tackles with a minimum 200 snaps in 2020. His 84.3 overall PFF grade was by far the best of any rookie offensive lineman.
Filling Thuney’s Shoes
While Onwenu was excellent whether playing right guard or right tackle, he is the most likely candidate on the Patriots roster to replace left guard Joe Thuney, who signed a five-year, $80 million deal with the Kansas City Chiefs in March.
Most teams would have been devastated by the loss of a lineman with the prowess of Joe Thuney. While he was one year removed from his second-team All-Pro selection in 2019, the argument can be made that 2020 may have been Thuney’s most impressive. Providing protection for a new quarterback in Cam Newton, as well as playing multiple positions along the line, made him invaluable. Despite the Pats’ troubles at quarterback, his presence provided stability and, more often than not, provided the quarterback with ample time to make plays.
Thuney leaves sizable shoes to fill. Luckily, Onwenu has the very size to fill those shoes after he earned All-Rookie honors last year from the Pro Football Writers of America. The last Patriots player to earn that achievement before Onwenu: Thuney in 2016.
While the 23-year-old Onwenu spent the majority of his collegiate career at the right guard position, he did make a start at left guard in 2017 for the Wolverines. Considering the prowess he showed at the tackle positions in 2020 (despite having minimal experience there), Onwenu looks to continue the Patriots’ tradition of peak performance on the left side of the offensive line.
Perhaps the most useful attribute credited to Onwenu is durability, a trait he coincidentally shares with Thuney. During his tenure in New England, Thuney played 80 out of a possible 80 games. Onwenu started all 26 games for Michigan in his last two years. For a unit that is as prone to injury as any in the NFL, that speaks volumes about the second-year lineman’s toughness and his conditioning.
Deservedly so, Onwenu is expected to join fellow linemen Isaiah Wynn (left tackle), David Andrews (center), Shaq Mason (right guard) and Trent Brown (right tackle) on the starting unit. However, he remains very Patriot-esque in his approach to the upcoming season. He remains focused on the task at hand:
“I just approach the offseason doing the basics, the general rules that will lead you and carry you along during the season,” Onwenu said. “Whatever, position-wise, as long as I’m doing the technique that my coaches are teaching, anywhere I am, I’ll be pretty good using the same techniques.”
The Patriots offensive line seems to be well positioned with Onwenu making the shift to the left side, and there's reason to hope that the "changing of the guard" will be a seamless transition.