The New England Patriots are about to get some much-needed assistance for their offensive line. Starting left guard Michael Onwenu is being removed from the COVID-19/Reserve list and expected to practice Thursday afternoon, as first reported by ESPN’s Field Yates.
Onwenu was placed on the list last Tuesday, October 5, along with left tackle Isaiah Wynn. Both linemen missed the week’s practices, as well as Sunday’s matchup with the Houston Texans. At this time, it appears that Wynn remains on the list.
Onwenu’s activation is great news for the Patriots, who are currently thin at the position. While starting right guard Shaq Mason returned to the practice field on Wednesday, he did not participate as he is still tending to an abdomen injury. Right tackle Trent Brown was placed on injured reserve Saturday and will not be eligible to play until Week Eight (October 31, Patriots at Los Angeles to take on the Chargers) at the earliest. Reserve lineman Justin Herron was a limited participant for Wednesday's practice, listed on the report with an abdomen injury.
In Week Five, New England started backups at each of the guard and tackle positions. Center David Andrews was the only regular starter to take snaps against Houston. Justin Herron (left tackle) James Ferentz (left guard), Ted Karras (right guard) and Yodny Cajuste (right tackle) played every offensive snap, performing well in the process. The Patriots offensive line allowed only one sack and four quarterback hits, while allowing the Patriots' rushers to collectively run for 126 yards
Despite an admirable ‘job-well-done’ by the reserves against the Texans, Onwenu will undoubtedly be expected to immediately resume his duties as a starter. Through his first four games in 2021, Onwenu has earned a positional grade of 85.2, from Pro Football Focus, making him their 10th highest-graded offensive lineman. He is also the highest-graded Patriots player through the first 5 weeks of the season. Overall, Onwenu has allowed only one sack and two quarterback hurries in 153 total snaps.
Still, there have been rumblings that Onwenu has seemed less-effective this season than he was in 2020; when he earned high praise for his performance as New England’s starting right tackle. Last season, he allowed a pressure on just 2.9 percent of all pass protection snaps, ranking fifth out of all the league’s offensive tackles with a minimum 200 snaps. While he has clearly been effective in his current position at left guard, the Michigan product was benched for much of the second half of the Patriots’ Week Four loss to the Tampa bay Buccaneers. The demotion came on the heels of his being flagged for two costly holding penalties.
As such, many have wondered whether the Patriots would consider returning Onwenu to his more natural fit on the right side of the offensive line. However, a positional shift would be unlikely, at best; especially given the Patriots current state. Though James Ferentz did a serviceable job in filling the left guard spot on Sunday, Onwenu is a clear upgrade. The 23-year-old continues to grow into a vital role along the Pats’ offensive line, one that was most recently held by former All-Pro Joe Thuney. At his best, Onwenu has shown a consistent and impressive 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 on a pass block. Therefore, it would make little sense for the Patriots to move him from a role for which he is obviously being groomed.
With Brown, Wynn and Mason all expected to return to the lineup when ready, New England will likely take the wise approach by using their reserve swing linemen to fill the current vacant spots along the offensive line. Prior to the season, the Patriots designated a starting line that was considered to be among the elite units in the NFL. Though linemen such as Ted Karras have performed at a high level in their recent assignments, the regular starters should be expected to resume their roles upon their return to in-game action; starting with the return of Michael Onwenu on Thursday.
Of course, it should be noted that Patriots head coach Bill Belichick will always do what he feels best for the football team. As for what it means for the offensive line, and where best to use talent like Michael Onwenu, we will find out in due time.
The Patriots will host the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday at Gillette Stadium.