Roughly four years ago, then-national scout Matt Groh was on a scouting trip at the University of Michigan when he came across a hulking interior offensive line prospect that caught his eye.
At that point, the Patriots typically favored more athletic guards than the player he was scouting, like quality starters Joe Thuney and Shaq Mason. However, Groh couldn't ignore what he saw, as this wide-bodied right guard with eye-popping play strength and foot speed for his size stood out amongst his peers even at a decorated program like Michigan.
Despite not exactly fitting the suit, the Patriots scouting department felt strongly that Mike Onwenu would be a good NFL player. As it turns out, he has been one of New England's most consistent players at both right guard and right tackle in his first three seasons.
"There weren't a lot of guards his size on our roster when we decided to select him. It was really difficult for me going into Michigan and evaluating Mike [Onwenu] and projecting him into our offense given what we had typically played. Mike has come in here and been a good player for us," Groh told reporters at his pre-draft press conference. "It was certainly a process, and that's where Coach Belichick and the coaches come in and their vision of how we could use a player."
As we fast-forward nearly four years later, how does Onwenu's story relate to the 2023 draft class? The Patriots stuck to the Onwenu prototype with fifth-round selection Atonio Mafi.
"He reminds me a lot of Michael Onwenu, who I recruited and coached at Michigan," UCLA offensive line coach Tim Drevno told Patriots.com. "Big heavy-handed guy, can move people off the football, got really good lower body girth, really good lean mass, and is built really well."
After graduating from Tom Brady's alma mater, Serra High School in northern California, Mafi committed to UCLA as a three-star recruit to play nose tackle on the defensive line. According to his coaches, he was nearly 400 pounds then and wasn't yet on an NFL trajectory.
Drevno, who was Michigan's offensive line coach for Onwenu's first two seasons in Ann Arbor, recalled seeing the massive Mafi playing nose tackle in old film cut-ups of the Bruins' defense.
"I remember seeing him on film when we were looking for a play. I saw him playing the D-Line against Fresno State, and he was probably, you should've seen him, like 370-380 pounds," Drevno said. "I think he's down to 332 pounds. I think he lost 38-40 pounds. He really changed his diet and bought in. Got serious about it."
Following a position switch to the interior offensive line, Mafi and his coaches began to realize that he had the raw talent to have an NFL career, "In his last year, he wanted to change everything. Maturity got older. I told him you could have a career doing this. You can be really special," Drevno added.
From there, Belichick called coaching confidant Chip Kelly, the current head coach at UCLA, to discuss Mafi after he caught the coach's eyes at the Shrine Bowl.
"I know Bill [Belichick] called Chip [Kelly] to talk to him about Mafi and was very intrigued by him," Drevno said. "Everybody knew about Jon Gaines, the right guard, but nobody really knew about Mafi because he really wasn't a known commodity in 2021. He became a known commodity in 2022. The Patriots, like they always do, they do their homework."
Along with his Onwenu-like playing style, Belichick connections, and coaching him at the Shrine Bowl, Kelly's system at UCLA is a pro-style scheme with a wide variety of blocking schemes. In other words, Mafi is prepared for the rigors of pro football.
Kelly built his offense around dual-threat quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson, who the Pats also worked with in Vegas, but Mafi has experience in Pats-style concepts. The Bruins allowed him to block on the move, even at his size. The other element to Mafi's football fit with the Patriots is his high football IQ, which is key for players on the interior who have to deal with post-snap movement.
"He's very sharp when you sit down and talk football with him. He can take you through everybody's blocking scheme and understand why we're doing it," Drevno explained. "He does a good job moving. He does a really good job sustaining blocks. He's got really good balance. You don't really see him on the ground very often."
Drevno then continued to break down the UCLA scheme, saying, "You're going to get the pin and pull, you get the counter series, you're gonna get the dive series, and then you got all the protections, the six-man, the five-man, the play action protections."
Although nobody is actively pushing Onwenu out the door, the former sixth-round pick is heading into a contract year as a 2024 free agent. In the business of football, that means teams need a contingency plan in case Onwenu isn't retained.
With last year's first-rounder Cole Strange locked into left guard, it's easy to see Mafi as an insurance policy at right guard. There's also uncertainty at both tackle spots, with Onwenu playing right tackle some in his first two seasons. The indications are that Onwenu is "settled in at guard" for now, per Groh in his post-draft press conference. But all options will likely be on the table heading into the 2023 season.
Regardless of where he slots in, Mafi has an intriguing skill set on the interior that resembles a recent Patriots draft success.
Patriots Draft Pick Profile
Strengths: Hulking interior offensive lineman with a wide-bodied frame and immense playing strength, hands are sudden and strong to stun and steer defenders, rep is over once he gets his hands on the defender, impressive athleticism to block on the move as an impact puller, plays to his size in pass protection by setting back in his chair with good patience, nasty finisher.
Weaknesses: Recovery talent when his initial plan is thwarted is subpar, needs to use his length more often to make first meaningful contact and keep defenders off his chest, pad level gets upright in pass protection allowing defenders underneath him, punch timing and hand placement could improve.
Personal: Mafi attended Serra High School in northern California, also the alma mater of Patriots legend Tom Brady. Mafi was a three-star recruit as a two-way star for Serra, committing to UCLA initially to play nose tackle before switching to the offensive line. Mafi, who is of Tongan descent, is the cousin of former Patriots tight end Devin Asiasi.
Comparable NFL player: Michael Onwenu – it's easy to see the similarities between Mafi and Onwenu's body types. Like Onwenu, you're getting a wide-bodied prospect with terrific play strength, balance, and impressive foot speed for a player of Mafi's stature. Although he played left guard in college, Mafi's skill set fits perfectly on the right side in New England.
What They're Saying…
Brandon Thorn/Bleacher Report: Mafi is a wide-bodied tone-setting presence with good natural power and an understanding of how to maximize his size using patience that is impressive considering his inexperience level, but he plays short with an upright style and inconsistent punch timing that saps his leverage in the run game and leads to too many quick, clean losses in pass-protection.
View photos of Patriots fifth round pick, guard Atonio Mafi in action at UCLA.