By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Every year during the draft, football fans like to get excited. A big-time playmaker on offense, a dominant defensive player, or — if they’re lucky — a shiny new quarterback can get fans of even the most moribund franchises to hop aboard the offseason excitement train.
Rarely does that infusion of enthusiasm take place, though, when a team drafts an offensive lineman. Especially when an offensive lineman is drafed in the sixth round. Such a pick is generally looked at as a camp body and not much more.
So, if you didn’t quite catch the news in April that the Patriots drafted Mike Onwenu out of Michigan, you certainly weren’t alone. But after three weeks of the season, it’s become very clear that “Big Mike” will soon be a name known to all who follow the Patriots on a regular basis.
The 6-foot-3, 350-pound Onwenu has displayed a very rare versatility already, getting in work at right tackle in the first two games before seamlessly stepping in as a left guard in Sunday’s win over the Raiders. Considering he played mostly right guard in college, that ability to play multiple positions so quickly — and with no preseason reps, to boot — certainly does not show itself too often.
“Mike’s done a good job. He’s a smart kid, he learns quickly,” Bill Belichick said of the rookie on Wednesday. “He played right guard at Michigan — he’s played that some [with the Patriots], but he’s played the other two more. So, his ability to adapt and adjust his footwork based on whether he’s playing tackle or playing on the left side of the line and all that has been pretty impressive.”
Onwenu was certainly noticeable through the first two weeks, but sliding in seamlessly for Joe Thuney so the All-Pro could fill in at center vs. the Raiders was certainly Onwenu’s standout performance.
He’s unsurprisingly drawn the praise of all of his coaches.
“Mike’s done a great job and he’s a really sharp guy. He really works hard at his craft and as long as he keeps working the way he’s doing I think he’s going to have a great career,” offensive line coach Cole Popovich said this week. “Back to the virtual offseason and those meetings, I thought he did a really nice job of picking up our system and learning it. You could tell he was really putting in the time to learn it. So conceptually, he understood pretty well what was going on around him, not just one position. And once we got here, the way he worked in the drill work, you just see some things and question, ‘Could this guy do this or not?’ Give him some one-on-one reps, then started getting some team reps, and it kind of builds from there. I wouldn’t say it’s any one thing, if you want to point to anything it’s probably the work ethic that he has. That’s probably the No. 1 thing that we saw early on.”
Onwenu not only got the start on Sunday but he was on the field for 100 percent of the team’s offensive snaps — a significant jump from 40.3 percent in Week 2 and 34.4 percent in Week 1. Based on the praise heaped upon him by his coaches and teammates, it doesn’t sound like that number will be coming down any time soon.
“I’m happy for him to get his first start and have a good game,” right guard Shaq Mason said. “Hard worker. He comes in every day 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. He’s always trying to gain more knowledge. That’s all you can ask for a young guy coming in.”
Onwenu’s caught the attention of not just those within the building but from national evaluators, including Pro Football Focus, which ranked him as the top performing offensive member of the entire 2020 rookie class thus far in the 2020 season.
Highest-Graded Offensive Rookies through W3:
1. Michael Onwenu – 87.6
2. Justin Jefferson – 85.3
3. Mekhi Becton – 76.9
4. James Robinson – 76.4
5. Joe Burrow – 76.1 pic.twitter.com/9b3jk2g2vv
— PFF (@PFF) September 29, 2020
Guards may not produce “highlight reels” in the way that receivers do, but nevertheless, Onwenu’s performance on Sunday clearly marked a shift from “solid” to “downright impressive.”
Watch here as he helps Thuney with the tackle before stepping back to stop the rush of Cory Littelton, thus giving Cam Newton a clean pocket and a clear avenue to deliver a bullet to Julian Edelman:
On Rex Burkhead’s longest run of the day, Onwenu pulled and cleared the path for the running back:
Newton got right behind the Onwenu-Thuney double team to pick up three yards on a second-and-1 QB sneak:
He proved capable of winning simple 1-on-1 pass protection battles, like this one against the 310-pound Maliek Collins:
He climbed to the second level to take out Littleton — a would-be tackler — on one of Burkhead’s touchdown runs:
In the fourth quarter, Burkhead ran right between Onwenu and Isaiah Wynn for a gain of 14, before cutting back to a wide open left side of the line for the touchdown on the very next play.
And on the Patriots’ longest play of the day, Onwenu did a really tremendous job of getting his entire body around Collins to wall off the D-tackle from the play. Watch Onwenu’s quickness here, in live speed and then in slow-motion:
Belichick said making the shift from right guard to left guard is akin to playing left-handed instead of right-handed, and he remains impressed with the work done by the rookie thus far.
“Mike’s done a good job. Day after day, he’s just impressive. His consistency is impressive,” Belichick said. “He’s a very strong player with good feet, good balance and likes football and understands football. Things come pretty easily to him in terms of instinctively on the field. Obviously, our system is not the easiest system to learn at any position, but just instinctively when he has to make a decision, he has to decide how quickly to combo to level two, what angle to take to block down on the guy, so forth. He just does a lot of little things well and does them right. He’s done a good job for us.”
Onwenu is obviously just a part of a larger offensive unit, but he’s nevertheless been a contributor to an offense that has averaged a league-leading 178 rushing yards per game and 5.1 yards per carry. The team has scored a league-high seven touchdowns on the ground, too. Considering they ranked 18th in rushing yards per game a year ago, the team has come along way. Cam Newton may be the No. 1 reason for that surge, but it’s simply not happening if not for improved play on the offensive line.
With just three weeks gone, there’s obviously a whole lot of season left. But as it stands now, Belichick and Co. are looking to have found a true steal late on day three of the draft.