Patriots get a strong debut from an unlikely rookie

Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com

The Patriots got a strong start from one of their rookies, and an unlikely source.

Offensive lineman Michael Onwenu played 22 offensive snaps in his NFL debut on Sunday, and none of them came at his natural position of guard. The 6-foot-3, 350-pounder started 26 games at right guard in his final two seasons at Michigan. But in his first game as a Patriot, Onwenu came in as an extra blocker at tight end and played one drive at right tackle.

Onwenu showed good push when blocking to the inside, and executed such a block to help open a hole for Cam Newton on a fourth-and-inches play in the fourth quarter. The rookie played both Patriots snaps in 14 personnel (1 running back, 4 tight ends) and made an effective block at the second level on the first offensive snap of the game.

It's hard to ask for a better debut from a rookie coming into the season with no expectations. The Patriots' interior offensive line is fully intact. But not only does Onwenu look like the go-to jumbo tight end in heavier personnel groupings, it looks like he'll have opportunities at right tackle, too.

Patriots quarterback Cam Newton got effective blocking from rookie Michael Onwenu (left) on the offensive line. (David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports)
Patriots quarterback Cam Newton got effective blocking from rookie Michael Onwenu (left) on the offensive line. (David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports)

"Mike’s earned playing time and he’s been able to play different spots for us," said head coach Bill Belichick. "Right now, our two guards are pretty established players and they played well. If we can find a way to utilize our personnel productively, then we’ll try to do that. But, Mike’s a smart kid and he’s got good versatility, he’s worked hard, and he’s embraced the opportunity to play different positions.

"Even though he doesn’t have a lot of experience there, he learns quickly and is able to utilize his skills to be productive."

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Onwenu hadn't played tackle since high school. He won't have an opportunity to play guard as long as Joe Thuney and Shaq Mason are healthy. So for the rookie to contribute as much as he did at a new position in his first NFL game impressed his teammates on the Patriots offensive line.

“I’m pretty proud of how Mike’s been working,” said David Andrews. “He’s done a lot of good things for us. He’s just got to keep improving. He’s a good player. He’s strong, he’s physical, he’s a good kid, he’s a good teammate. Happy to have him on our football team. Just like the rest of us, he’s going to learn a lot from this game and we can keep it moving.”

Let's empty the notebook from Patriots-Dolphins...

Joejuan Williams finds his role

Much like Onwenu was going to have trouble finding a role on the interior of the offensive line, Joejuan Williams doesn't have much of a shot at playing cornerback with the Patriots' depth at that position. So he's moved to safety, and he looked the part covering Dolphins tight end Mike Gesicki 1-on-1 on Sunday. Williams most notably broke up a pass intended for Gesicki on third-and-5 in the third quarter.

Patriots defensive back Joejuan Williams breaks up a pass intended for Miami Dolphins tight end Mike Gesicki. (David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports)
Patriots defensive back Joejuan Williams breaks up a pass intended for Miami Dolphins tight end Mike Gesicki. (David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports)

Williams allowed just one catch for nine yards when targeted, according to Pro Football Focus. Bill Belichick took notice of the sophomore defensive back's production.

"He had a couple really good plays, big plays," said Belichick during his Monday conference call. "I mean, [Gesicki's] not really a conventional tight end, but he’s a tough matchup in the passing game, and felt like Joejuan matched up against him and did a good job."

Adrian Phillips compares Kyle Dugger to All-Pro

The Patriots appear to have found an excellent fit for their defense in safety Adrian Phillips. The 28-year-old led the team with nine tackles on Sunday, and read Ryan Fitzpatrick's eyes to intercept the Dolphins quarterback. He seems to know a good safety when he sees one.

That's why it was notable for Phillips to give very high praise for Patriots rookie safety Kyle Dugger. Phillips invoked the name of his former Chargers teammate Derwin James, who was a first team All-Pro safety in his rookie season in 2018. He's seen a similar combination of physical gifts and football I.Q. that could make Dugger an impact player at the NFL level if he puts it all together.

"The first thing that I noticed was he's smart, so we didn't get a chance to meet in person for a long time because we did everything virtually," said Phillips during a video conference Monday. "But going through the meetings, this is a guy that can pick up on the scheme real quick. I would say this isn't the easiest scheme to pick up. There's a lot of things that go into it, but once you get it, you got it. And the way that he just picked it up and he's able to talk ball, seeing that in a rookie, you really don't see that a lot of times. The only other time that I've really seen that was with Derwin James. And so I noticed that a little bit.

FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS - SEPTEMBER 13: Kyle Dugger #35 of the New England Patriots warms up before the game against the Miami Dolphins at Gillette Stadium on September 13, 2020 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
Kyle Dugger of the New England Patriots warms up before the game against the Miami Dolphins at Gillette Stadium on September 13, 2020. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

"And when you see him in person, it's just his physical stature, like 6-2, 6-3, you know, big guy. And he's running and he's able to he's able to cover the tight ends, he can get down in the box, he can knock some heads off, so he's solid. It's good to see how much in tune he is with watching film and stuff like that as a rookie, because a lot of times rookies are just trying to find their way, they still might be into the college mentality. But he came in like he's a pro already, so it's cool to see it."

Winovich staying humble

Williams wasn't the only Patriot showing marked improvement from year 1-2. Second-year linebacker Chase Winovich proved he's capable of being more than just a pass-rusher in his 2020 debut, making plays on early downs and even lining up as a nose tackle. But he's already focusing on figuring out where he can get better in time for the Seattle Seahawks.

"Yeah, I view it as just a starting point," Winovich said. "And I guess I was focusing on the positives but, I mean, no one's as hard on themselves as I am on myself. There's plenty of things that I need to work on. And that's just part of the process and part of staying hungry and staying humble. I'm just trying to stay right in that sweet spot where you know I'm encouraged, I'm motivated. But at the same time, it allows me to produce a consistent result. I'm really trying to fine tune that process itself."

MORE: Belichick Has New-Look Patriots Ready To Go

Winovich made six tackles, one for a loss, and registered a QB hit in the opener. His continued development is something to monitor, as the front-seven transitions amid significant roster turnover.

Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Yell at him on Twitter @mattdolloff or send him a nasty email at [email protected].