By Alex Barth, 985TheSportsHub.com
Bill Belichick and the sixth round of the NFL Draft. Does it ever fail?
As bad as the Patriots offense looked at times in 2020, a pair of rookies likely prevented things from becoming much worse. From the loss of Dante Scarnecchia, to Marcus Cannon opting out, to a bad case of the injury bug, New England saw quite the shakeup up front before and during the season. Yet there to hold things steady were 2020 sixth-round picks Michael Onwenu and Justin Herron.
We’ll start with Onwenu, who was arguably the best rookie on the team this season. The 182nd overall pick entered training camp without much fanfare outside of his size. Onwenu was listed as 6-foot-3, 375 pounds in the draft, but slimmed down to 355 in New England.
Due to his size, Onwenu had been an interior lineman throughout his time in Michigan, and was expected to remain in that role with the Patriots. However, that plan changed once he got to camp and coaches saw how quickly he was picking up the NFL game.
Just watching some plays. Mike Onwenu turns hard-hitting NFL safeties into me, on the scout team as a sophomore, desperate to not get absolutely BULLDOZED at practice on a cold November day. pic.twitter.com/NxQ1dsQ07d— Michael Hurley (@michaelFhurley) December 3, 2020
Onwenu ‘started’ the first two games of the year at tight end, with the Patriots opening games in a jumbo tackle-eligible set. However, he saw most of his time at right tackle, rotating with Jermaine Eluemunor. This was the formula for the first two games, and Onwenu held his own despite having not played tackle since high school.
Due to injuries early in the season, he was moved inside to left guard for Week 3, before switching over to right guard for the next two games. The injury situation on the interior of the offensive line was starting to sort itself out, but as it did Eluemunor ended up on IR after Week 6. Feeling confident in what they saw from him early in the season, Onwenu became the starting right tackle – a role he would hold and succeed in until Week 17, when injuries once again saw him move to the interior for his final start.
When the Patriots took Onwenu back in April, they didn’t realize they had a potential starting tackle on their hands. Co-offensive line coach Cole Popovich told reporters at the end of the season that Onwenu becoming a full-time tackle wasn’t by design. Instead, the team rewarded him for a strong camp by putting him out there to see what he could do, and he exceeded expectations. Although his long-term projection sees him moving back to guard, there’s nothing wrong with some versatility, especially in Foxborough.
Mike Onwenu said this block earned him a big cheer during film study. He wiped out two Bills linebackers like it was nothing. pic.twitter.com/6inMwN8AmV— Zack Cox (@ZackCoxNESN) November 5, 2020
While Herron didn’t receive quite the attention Onwenu did, he still proved to be a valuable addition. Over the course of the season he started games at both right and left tackle, spelling Eluemunor and Isaiah Wynn during injuries.
“He’s still got a long way to go and a lot of learning experiences for him, but I think he’s got a chance to be able to contribute for us and potentially develop into some type of a role player for us,” Belichick said of Herron in the final weeks of the season.
In the short term, Herron looks ready for a swing tackle role, able to be a backup on both sides of the ball. After all, that was basically his role in 2020. Beyond that, if he fills out a little bit more and refines his game, it’s not unrealistic to think the 195th overall pick can reach the level of everyday starter.
Overall, it’s safe to say Belichick nailed his Day 3 picks on the offensive line (even with seventh-round pick Dustin Woodard retiring in the first week on training camp). Sure, that’s not a super exciting point to make, but it’s how strong teams are built. Shaq Mason was a Day 3 pick, and David Andrews was undrafted. With turnover expected on the offensive line in coming years, that’s to this rookie class, they’re ready to absorb some changes.
Alex Barth is a writer and 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. Thoughts? Comments? Questions? Looking for a podcast guest? Let him know on Twitter @RealAlexBarth or via email at Alexander.Barth@bbgi.com.