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Mike Onwenu Discusses Re-Signing With the Patriots, Preparing to Play Right Tackle in 2024

Speaking for the first time since re-signing with the Patriots in free agency, Onwenu opened up about the process and the team's plan for him to play right tackle. 

Patriots OL Mike Onwenu (71)
Patriots OL Mike Onwenu (71)

The Patriots top priority this offseason was to retain the veteran players the new regime identified as building blocks moving forward.

Although the team's record was very underwhelming a year ago, the roster constructed by former head coach Bill Belichick and many front-office executives who remain with the club wasn't a total teardown. Instead, certain areas were viewed as more of a remodeling project.

Like when you're flipping a house as a fixer-upper, head coach Jerod Mayo and personnel chief Eliot Wolf haven't torn the structure down to the studs. For a defense that ranked ninth in defense-adjusted value over average (DVOA) in 2023, that meant maintaining a strong core that included re-signing safety Kyle Dugger, pass-rusher Josh Uche, and edge-setter Anfernee Jennings. The Pats also extended ascending interior pass-rusher Christian Barmore.

Offensively, there was more work to be done after ranking 31st by averaging 13.9 points last season. New England has an entirely new coaching staff under offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt, selected quarterback Drake Maye with the third overall draft choice, and got Maye some rookie playmakers with a double-dip at the wide receiver position (Ja'Lynn Polk and Javon Baker).

Still, the Patriots didn't completely start from scratch on offense either, as retaining one unrestricted free agent in particular was a priority for the organization's top decision-makers. During the NFL Scouting Combine in February, director of scouting Eliot Wolf referred to stud offensive lineman Mike Onwenu as a "cornerstone" player for New England.

"It's no secret we want to try to keep Mike," Wolf said. "He's certainly someone we view as a cornerstone for us."

At the start of free agency, the Patriots quickly locked up Onwenu on a reported three-year, $57 million deal. Speaking to reporters for the first time since re-signing with the team that drafted him, Onwenu spoke about the free agency process and his outlook for the upcoming season.

"I love it. The process went good. I'm happy to be back here, so that's all that matters," Onwenu said Thursday. "I think it was always trending in the direction that I would be back. We always kept the communication line open and were talking about everything. So it was a good time."

One of the unique aspects of the negotiation between the player and team in this instance was that Onwenu represented himself. Onwenu parted ways with his agents before hitting the open market, while the two sides also had discussions about what position Onwenu would play. In his first four seasons, Onwenu has made starts at both guard spots and right tackle, ending the 2023 season with 11 consecutive starts at right tackle.

Despite being built like an interior lineman with a 6-3, 344-pound frame, Onwenu graded out as Pro Football Focus's 29th-best offensive tackle out of 81 qualified players. The 26-year-old reiterated what Mayo and Wolf had said publicly about Onwenu finding a permanent home in the Patriots new offense as the starting right tackle.

"Throughout the whole process, we spoke about me playing tackle. Even after I signed, that was still the same thing. So, under my notion, I'm playing right tackle," Onwenu told reporters.

Onwenu said his approach this offseason won't change much as he gets ready to start the year at tackle rather than inside guard. However, he acknowledged that some of the Patriots techniques will change with a new coaching staff. Under Van Pelt, the Patriots have hired assistant coach Scott Peters to run the offensive line, with the expectation that New England will transition to an outside zone rushing attack in 2024.

On Tuesday, lead running back Rhamondre Stevenson confirmed that the Patriots would incorporate more outside zone schemes. In outside zone, blokers work in concert to flow laterally to the line of scrimmage to stretch the defense horizontally. The ball carrier then reads the defense to either bounce the run around the corner or cut the ball back through the middle of the defense.

The question for Onwenu and others on the line that were originally acquired to run New England's old downhill gap schemes is are they schematic fits for the new offense?

"Yeah, definitely," Onwenu said. "At the end of the day, we're all football players, so whatever scheme you put in front of us, we're going to run, and we're going to execute. Whatever they call, the play will be run, and it'll be run well."

In addition to what Stevenson said earlier in the week, Onwenu explained the nuances of the run-blocking schemes the Patriots will implement more of under Van Pelt.

"It is a lot of wide zone and more emphasis on actually stretching the ball and having the ball on the outside," Onwenu continued. "Last year, everything was more cutback. It'll be interesting to see how that plays [out]. It'll probably allow us to finish our blocks and stay on our blocks without worrying about the guy falling off or worrying about where the run is going to go."

Ultimately, the types of runs the Patriots call probably won't be the main reason this team sinks or swims. As Onwenu said, football is football, and surely Van Pelt will adjust if the schemes aren't productive. For example, the Browns became more gap-heavy in AVP's final season in Cleveland due to their personnel in 2023.

With injuries and other circumstances leading to lineup changes, the Browns turned to rookie Dawand Jones at right tackle. Jones is a hulking lineman who stands at 6-8, 374 pounds. Due to his immense size, the Ohio State product wasn't a great fit for outside zone runs, so Van Pelt and Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski went away from their staple scheme to run downhill.

For Onwenu and company, the spring is for building team chemistry and setting the foundation for the season ahead rather than focusing on the minutiae of run-blocking schemes.

"We have an opportunity to build and start new. I think that's really what's important. We all see that opportunity, and we want to take that opportunity," Onwenu explained. "This is year five for me, so I do feel the need to be more and do more as a leader. Primarily, lead by example. I just want to intensify that."

The Patriots hope that full offseason training at right tackle will help Onwenu get used to the nuances of the position. After being thrust into the switch mid-season as the Pats best option, an entire spring and summer working at right tackle should help Onwenu elevate his game. The Pats also need to prep veteran Chuks Okorafor and third-round pick Caedan Wallace, both of whom are flipping to the left side, for a chance to start at left tackle.

There are still some moving parts along the offensive line for the Patriots, but the messaging to Onwenu seems clear: the Patriots highest-paid offensive lineman will play right tackle in 2024.

DISCLAIMER: The views and thoughts expressed in this article are those of the writer and don't necessarily reflect those of the organization. Read Full Disclaimer

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