With one month to go until they are scheduled to report to training camp, the New England Patriots currently have the league-allowed maximum of 90 players under contract. However, only 53 of them will be able to survive roster cutdowns on September 5 and ultimately make the active team. Over the course of spring and summer, just like we have in years past, we will take a look at the players fighting for those spots to find out who has the best chances of helping the Patriots keep their dynasty alive in Year One after Tom Brady.
Today, the series continues with a member of New England’s offensive line.
Name: Michael Onwenu
Jersey number: TBD
Opening day age: 22
Size: 6-foot-3, 345 pounds
Contract status: Under contract through 2023 (2024 UFA)
What is his experience? Onwenu arrived in the NFL as a sixth-round draft pick by the Patriots earlier this year, which means that his experience at the pro level is rather limited at the moment: he did participate in New England’s virtual offseason workouts as well as the club’s rookie developmental program, but has yet to take part in any on-field practices due to the Coronavirus pandemic. Nevertheless, Onwenu does have plenty of high-level football on his résumé from his four-year stint at the University of Michigan.
Arriving in Ann Arbor in 2016, Onwenu first played on both the offensive and the defensive lines before carving out a starting role as the team’s right guard during his sophomore campaign — one he held throughout the next three years as well. All in all, he started 34 games at the position with one additional start coming at left guard. Along the way, Onwenu proved himself a strong pass blocker whose size and power stood out. Accordingly, he was named third-team All-Big Ten in both 2018 and 2019.
What did his 2019 season look like? Coming off the most successful season of his career up until that point, Onwenu decided to stay in school and return to the Wolverines for a fourth season. The decision proved to be a good one, as the big-bodied guard once again delivered a quality campaign and thereby established himself as a draft-worthy candidate — one whose developmental upside once again stood out, as did his durability: Onwenu appeared in all 13 of Michigan’s games for a second straight year.
As had been the case the previous two seasons, Onwenu’s abilities as a pass protector were on display once more in 2019. Playing a total of 925 snaps with 496 of them coming in the passing game, he surrendered just nine quarterback pressures all season long: he did not give up a single snap, and allowed only three hits as well as six additional hurries. While he still showed some need for refinement from a technical perspective, Onwenu’s brute strength and size again allowed him to get the best of his opponents on a regular basis.
This can also be said about his development as a run blocker. While still not the most agile of players despite actively trying to adjust his weight, Onwenu had arguably his best year as a run blocker to date. As a result of his solid all-around performance, he was named the third All-Big Ten team for the second year in a row and also later invited to both the East-West Shrine Game and the NFL’s scouting combine (although he decided not to participate in any on-field workouts in Indianapolis).
What is his projected role? When the Patriots selected Onwenu with the 182nd overall selection in April, they added him to an interior offensive line that appears set at the top: guards Joe Thuney and Shaq Mason, and center David Andrews, are all projected to fill the starting roles this year. Accordingly, Onwenu will likely serve as a backup option in 2020 — one that might have to increase its repertoire to offer value outside his usual guard position as well.
What is his special teams value? While Onwenu’s position limits his overall value in the kicking game, he might see regular action in the game’s third phase in case he makes the active roster: the Patriots use their offensive linemen on field goal and extra point attempts, and Onwenu’s size and power could help him earn a spot on special teams even when his offensive playing time should otherwise be limited.
Does he have positional versatility? Even though he started his career playing on both the offensive and the defensive side of the ball, Onwenu’s does realistically not offer a lot of versatility: entering the NFL, he is a guard first and foremost. Given that the Patriots like their offensive linemen to be able to fill more than just one role, the 22-year-old therefore might need to start working at another position — likely center — this summer.
What is his salary cap situation? The eighth member of the Patriots’ draft class to sign his rookie contract, Onwenu agreed to a standard four-year deal with the organization in early May. As part of his pact, the sixth-round pick is currently hitting the salary cap with just $50,617 — the fully-guaranteed 2020 portion of his signing bonus proration — under the league’s Top-51 rule. If he makes the 53-man roster, though, this cap hit will increase to $660,617.
What is his roster outlook? The Patriots have had some success with sixth-round draft picks in the past — from Tom Brady to Elandon Roberts and Ted Karras — but that does not mean Onwenu is a lock to make the team. Far from it, actually: the rookie will need to prove his worth against a deep group of potential backup interior linemen in training camp. His upside may be enticing, but if he cannot stand out compared to Hjalte Froholdt, Jermaine Eluemunor, Najee Toran and fellow rookie Dustin Woodard, it seems that the practice squad would be his best chance of staying on New England’s payroll and getting another shot next year.