The best rookie for the New England Patriots this year isn't who you would expect.
Taking him in the sixth round out of Michigan, offensive lineman Michael Onwenu has quickly climbed the ranks during his short stint with the Patriots, which is in part due to skill and also because of circumstance.
Because New England wants to utilize their loaded backfield and athletic quarterback, they have decided this season take advantage of their offensive line depth in order to bully opposing defenses in the run game. This had led to players like Onwenu earning playing time even as a reserve lineman, and it has earned him the opportunity to show his skill and athleticism on the football field.
His strong play over the first couple weeks not only got him more playing time in Week 3 against the Las Vegas Raiders, but it also earned him his first NFL start.
With starting center David Andrews being placed on injured reserve, New England decided to shift starting left guard Joe Thuney over to center, which left a vacancy to fill at left guard. And instead of plugging that spot with one of their more experienced reserve offensive lineman, they opted to give Onwenu the start instead, and it paid off.
The Michigan product played 100 percent of the offensive snaps in Week 3, and garnered an 86.7 overall grade by PFF. His performance along with the remainder of the re-tooled offensive line helped the Patriots dominate on the ground against Las Vegas, racking up 250 rushing yards on the day.
"Mike’s shown a lot of versatility. He played right guard at Michigan, and that’s pretty much the only spot he played," Bill Belichick said to the media on Monday. "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 [Thuney]. 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."
So what has helped Onwenu be the standout player of New England's 2020 draft class despite being picked in the later rounds? According to one of his fellow offensive lineman, it's because Onwenu works hard every day and prepares himself for any situation by asking the right questions.
"He comes in everyday with his hard hat on, asks lots of questions each and every day to each of us, not just the guards, he was playing guard and tackle so he's asking constantly, trying to gain more knowledge, and that's all you can ask for from a young guy coming in," starting right guard Shaq Mason said to the media on Monday.
Onwenu's quick ascent couldn't have come at a more opportune time. For most players in his position, playing behind an All-Pro caliber guard like Joe Thuney would mean not seeing the field on game day very much, if at all. However, the versatility of New England's offensive line and injuries has brought about an opportunity for Onwenu to shine, and highlighted what a tremendous value he was in the sixth round.
David Andrews won't be back for at least another three games. But based on what we saw from Onwenu in his first start, along with Joe Thuney at center, Andrews can take all the time he needs to fully heal.
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