Patriots

NFL Draft spotlight: Michael Onwenu's rare size makes him an intriguing option for Patriots

NFL Draft spotlight: Michael Onwenu's rare size makes him an intriguing option for Patriots

Their faces tell the story.

Pain. Discomfort. Whatever is the range of feelings human beings might experience with 400 pounds pinning them to the ground, they are captured in the images that reside inside Michigan's offensive line room.

Michael Onwenu's size — he measured in at 6-foot-3, 370 pounds last season — is such that the numbers alone would indicate he can dole out bodily harm on a football field, where he carries about an additional 20 pounds in pads.

Download the MyTeams app for the latest Patriots news and analysis

But the pictures of the biggest Wolverines guard resting comfortably on top of unfortunate defenders illustrate how he can drain both an opponent's lungs and his will with just a little help from the planet's gravitational pull. 

"We kind of have a name for it in our room," Michigan offensive line coach Ed Warriner told the Next Pats Podcast. "We call it 'burping' a guy. Because when you fall on them and you're that big, the air comes out of their lungs and sounds like they just burped. We'd be like, 'Mike, did you burp him?'"

Onwenu once was the type of player to help up opponents after knocking them down. But as his team tracked offensive line knockdowns, as he embraced "burping" others as part of his job, he blossomed into an NFL-caliber prospect.

That it was the Patriots who selected him in the sixth round, No. 182 overall, came as a bit of a surprise.

'ATHLETIC ENOUGH' 

Long-time Patriots offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia consistently laid out the requirements for his players thusly: "Smart, tough and athletic enough."

There was often an emphasis on that last word to explain that he wasn't necessarily looking for track athletes. But a baseline of athleticism was required for Patriots linemen to execute their jobs. 

Over the years, the Patriots have become more and more athletic on the interior at center and guard. Shaq Mason is, Bill Belichick has said, among the most athletic linemen he's coached. Joe Thuney is athletic enough to play any position on the line in a pinch. David Andrews is a quick-footed center whose movement skills open up a portion of the Patriots playbook that wouldn't be available to them with a slower player. 

All of them can scoot. All of them weigh between 300 and 310 pounds. How, then, does a player who weighed 350 pounds at this year's combine, nicknamed "Big Mike," fit in? 

"He's much better at footwork and change of direction than you think ... His body fat is not high," Warriner said. "He's just massive. His bone, his muscle mass is just tremendous. It was all closely checked by our strength coach, our nutritionist. They did all kinds of body scans to see if he could really lose. 

Some people would say, 'Eh, lose 50 pounds and we'll talk to you.' Mike can't lose 50 pounds. He doesn't have 50 pounds to lose. He could lose 20 pounds and he did for the combine. That was where he's at. But he'll play at about 360, I would imagine — 355, 360.

Onwenu was athletic enough coming out of high school to be rated the No. 4 guard in the country and the No. 1 overall recruit in the state of Michigan.

Offers from Michigan, Alabama and Ohio State, where Warriner coached from 2012-16, don't roll in based on size alone. Onwenu's tape flashes moments of good agility for someone of his size. He can get out of his stance quickly to get to linebackers at the second level or pull and clear space like a human wrecking ball. 

There's no doubt that fluidity of movement isn't Onwenu's top trait as a player. And if he sees time on the Patriots offensive line, they may have adjust by dialing back calls that would get him in space. 

But is he athletic enough? Seems to be.

Listen and subscribe to the Next Pats Podcast:

'THOSE GUYS ARE ALWAYS HARD TO FIND'

Consider this, from Belichick back in 2018, when I asked about the challenge of handling the size of a 330-pound defensive tackle the Patriots would be facing that week. Belichick got into a broader discussion about rare size — regardless of position — and its value. 

"Well, first of all Phil, let’s start with how many 330 guys are there out there? Now if you’re looking for 190-pound receivers, I mean, there’s eight bazillion of them," Belichick said. "How many 330-pound guys are there? There’s just not that many of them. So, they’re always hard to find. Those guys are always hard to find. I don’t care if they’re tackles, offensive tackles, defensive tackles. For every guy that’s 330, there’s 20 that are 290. 

"If you can find the 330 guys, or whatever the number is, that are as athletic and have the skill of guys that weigh 40 pounds less that play the same position, generally speaking, those guys are probably going to outperform the guys that are lesser. Now if there’s some balance, then that’s a different story. And again, there’s only so many 330-pound guys out there, or 370-pound guys, however big Trent Brown is or Marcus Cannon. There’s not an unlimited supply of those guys, so if they have that kind of size and are athletic and have the skills, then chances are they’re going to be playing for somebody. 

If they don’t have the skills then they pump gas. There’s something else. But guys that are big and athletic, there’s a sport and a position for most of those guys. It’s the little ones, like me, that were slow and make up for it with lack of quickness, that have trouble.

What the Patriots want to be offensively moving forward could determine the role into which Onwenu eventually grows. Because if they remain a more classic drop-back style, pocket-passing team, then he should get a crack at a significant gig up front.

Maybe he ends up the next Ted Karras, another power-over-quickness player who served as the primary interior backup for most of his four years with the team. Filling in for Andrews in 2019, in a scheme built for Tom Brady, Karras allowed just two sacks and ended up with the eighth-best pass-blocking efficiency figure (98.1) among starting NFL centers, per Pro Football Focus.

Onwenu has proven at a high level that he can do more than de-cleat people.

A three-year starter for the Wolverines, he anchored down to withstand pass-rushes from future pros. According to PFF, he allowed just 13 pressures and one sack over the last two seasons in Ann Arbor. Warriner remembers one rep against the second player taken in this year's draft, Ohio State edge defender Chase Young, where Onwenu snuffed out Young's interior rush before it got started.

"When Mike gets his hands on you and gets locked out, it's over," Warriner said. "I don't care who you are. I don't care how much money they're paying you. I don't care. When he gets locked out on a human being with a good base, it's over. You can watch that time and time again. It doesn't matter who he's going against."

'THAT TAKES A GROWN-ASS MAN'

While that power at the point of attack is valuable, it's worth wondering how it'll play in a Patriots scheme that could be set up to value athleticism up front more than ever before. 

Perhaps, with Brady gone, they'll make use of their new fullback, their two new rookie tight ends and a more mobile quarterback in Jarrett Stidham to devise plans that encourage pocket movement. If that means getting offensive linemen on the run — laterally on wide zone plays or out in space on screens — then that might not be best for Onwenu's skill set. 

If the Patriots are going to rely more heavily on a power running game that allows Onwenu to dominate an area of five square yards around the line of scrimmage, then that might end up a match made in heaven.

"Just because you're big doesn't mean you can move people," Warriner said. "He knows how to translate his power to the ground. He's very strong. He's powerful. He can move people one-on-one. 

"I have a saying in the o-line room: If you can move a man against his will, that's the toughest job in football. There are a lot of things people think are tough. Moving a man against his will, when he doesn't want to be moved, that takes a grown-ass man, and Mike can do that. That's No. 1. He can move people one-on-one."

There's a reason Onwenu lasted until the sixth round, of course. His weight will have to be monitored. There's a chance he's limited scheme-wise. His collegiate experience was limited almost exclusively to right guard, outside of one start on the left side in 2017.

But Onwenu is in possession of a rare trait. That could take him a long way, Warriner believes. And Warriner seen his share of NFL success stories, having coached Taylor Decker (2016 first round, Ohio State), Zack Martin (2014 first round, Notre Dame) and Nick Martin (2016 second round, Notre Dame) during his career.

"Mike used to excite me in practice," Warriner said. "Every day he would do something. I would go, 'Oh!' I've been around a while. I've had a lot of guys play in the NFL, and I've been around some great ones — I mean, some dudes. Mike's in the category with that kind of talent."

Onwenu doesn't have to play like any of those established pros in order to carve himself a role with his new team. He just might need to beat out the likes of Hjalte Froholdt — a third-rounder in 2019 who missed his rookie season injured — as well as fellow 2020 draftees Justin Herron and Dustin Woodard. 

Before Onwenu ever steps on the practice fields at Gillette Stadium, he'll have one thing they don't: rare size. If he can move that frame at a satisfactory level? Guys that are big and athletic, there's a position for most of 'em.

 

How Cam Newton's 'up to' $7.5 million contract fits under Patriots salary cap

How Cam Newton's 'up to' $7.5 million contract fits under Patriots salary cap

How did the Patriots pull this off? How did a team that had no financial breathing room, no salary-cap space, go ahead and sign Cam Newton to a contract that's worth up to $7.5 million?

The key words there are "up to."

Download the MyTeams app for the latest Patriots news and analysis

Bill Belichick and Nick Caserio drew up a deal that would pay Newton the way other quarterback reclamation projects have been paid, if he performs. In the meantime, his salary-cap figure for 2020 comes in at just a smidgen higher than that of long-snapper Joe Cardona.

Let that sink in.

ALPHABET SOUP

Understanding how the Patriots were able to pull that off — pay Newton the going rate for a quarterback looking to revive his career, while simultaneously getting his salary on their books when they had next to no cap space — requires an understanding of the letters "NLTBE."

That acronym stands for "not likely to be earned," and it describes the majority of the incentives Newton received in his new deal with the Patriots. By NFL rule, NLTBE incentives do not count against the salary cap immediately. NLTBE incentive markers are markers that a player didn't achieve the season prior. If those markers are reached, then that incentive payment hits the following season's salary cap.

(As you might guess, LTBE incentive markers are markers a player did hit the season prior. LTBE incentives are counted against the cap upon the player's deal being signed.)

For example, if a player did not throw for 3,000 yards in 2019 but would be paid a $1 million bonus for reaching the 3,000-yard passing mark in 2020, that would be considered an incentive that is NLTBE. It would not count against the 2020 cap. If that 3,000-yard mark is reached in 2020, it would count toward the 2021 cap.

We can deduce then that the $5.75 million in available incentives included in Newton's deal did not count against the Patriots cap for 2020. They couldn't. The team didn't have enough cap space on hand to give him that kind of money in LTBE incentives. The Patriots had less than $1 million in space prior to agreeing to terms with Newton, per Patriots cap expert Miguel Benzan.

We don't yet know the specific markers Newton has to hit to earn his 2020 incentives, but because he played in only two games last season, the Patriots could have given him very reasonable numbers to reach and they still wouldn't count against the cap immediately because they'd be NLTBE. 

For instance, New England could've given Newton bonuses for playing in three games, passing for 600 yards and throwing one touchdown. Because he didn't hit any of those numbers in 2019 — he played in just two games and threw for 572 yards without any touchdowns — they'd all be considered NLTBE and not counted against the 2020 cap. In all likelihood, though, it's going to be a little more difficult than that for Newton to reach the incentives laid out for him.

Listen and subscribe to Tom E. Curran's Patriots Talk Podcast:

WARNING: MATH AHEAD

So if $5.75 million of Newton's "up to" $7.5 million contract with the Patriots won't count against the cap, what will?

Newton's veteran-minimum $1.05 million contract, for one, will count. That's the minimum under the new collective bargaining agreement for players with at least seven years of NFL service.

Additionally, two games of Newton's $700,000 in per-game roster bonuses will count against the cap. If he's provided $700,000 total in per-game roster bonuses, that means he'll be owed $43,750 for each of the 16 regular-season games he's on the Patriots roster. Two games of per-game roster bonus — $87,500 — counts against the 2020 cap because it's LTBE; he played in two games in 2019. The rest of those per-game roster bonuses are considered NLTBE but will count against the cap with each game he plays. So if he plays in all 16 games, by the end of the 2020 season, his cap number will be $1.75 million. Active roster bonuses are the only earned NLTBE incentives that hit a current year's cap, Benzan relayed. 

Therefore, Newton's cap number for New England in 2020 — his base salary plus two games of roster bonuses — comes to $1,137,500. That's slightly more than the $1.08 million cap number assigned to Cardona and the $1.05 million number assigned to fellow quarterback Brian Hoyer for this coming season. It's slightly less than fullback Dan Vitale's 2020 cap hit of $1,287,500. 

Now the question is, how did the Patriots fit Newton under their cap if they had less than $1 million in cap space left prior to landing him? His cap number is over $1 million, isn't it?

It is. But there's an accounting rule the NFL uses to include only the contracts of the players with the top-51 base salaries against a team's cap until active rosters are finalized.

Newton's cap number replaces what was the No. 51 salary on the 90-man roster prior to Newton's signing. According to Benzan, that No. 51 slot was assigned to outside linebacker Tashawn Bower. Because the difference in cap numbers between Newton and Bower is only a few hundred thousand dollars, the Patriots had enough space to add Newton once Bower fell below the No. 51 spot.

If the Patriots were snug up against the cap before, they're even more so now. By Benzan's estimates, they have $263,489 left in cap room. To handle regular in-season spending, they'll need to clear out more space eventually. Re-working Joe Thuney's contract to reduce his nearly $15 million cap hit, for instance, could free up some significant cap room quickly. 

MAXING OUT

If Newton makes the team, plays, and plays well, he may have a chance to reach the full $7.5 million value of the deal. But why $7.5 million? Why settle there?

Marcus Mariota is getting a $7.5 million base salary to be the No. 2 for the Raiders in 2020. Teddy Bridgewater made about that much in 2019 from the Saints. Both were passers in need of a fresh start. Both carried a certain level of uncertainty.

The same is true for Newton in New England, though his résumé is vastly more impressive than that of either of those other quarterbacks when they signed their contracts.

It's the definition of a low-risk, high-reward deal. It just required a little bit of creativity to get it in under the minimal amount of cap space the Patriots had available for 2020.

Cam Newton's private QB coach dispels 'lazy narrative' about Patriots star

Cam Newton's private QB coach dispels 'lazy narrative' about Patriots star

Cam Newton's reported agreement to sign with the New England Patriots has mostly been met with positive reviews.

A bunch of former and current players, including ex-Patriots Randy Moss and Deion Branch, as well as Newton's former teammates including Carolina Panthers linebacker Shaq Thompson, applauded the move. Many media members, from people who cover pro football daily to talk/debate show hosts, also have had plenty of good things to say about the signing.

Download the MyTeams app for the latest Patriots news and analysis

One of the few concerns being debated is Newton's ability to succeed for a head coach like Bill Belichick.

Everyone knows the Patriots coach runs a tight ship in Foxboro, where players rarely give the other team bulletin board material and often provide boring answers in press conferences. It's the classic team-above-all approach, typically called "The Patriot Way', and it's hard to argue with the results -- six Super Bowl titles in 20 years.

George Whitfield, a private quarterbacks coach who's worked a lot with Newton, did his best to dispel what he calls a "lazy narrative" about the veteran QB and Belichick.

"Suggesting that Cam can't adapt to Belichick is a lazy narrative," Whitfield told ESPN's Tim Keown. "Cam recognizes this as a singular opportunity. I can imagine Belichick telling him, 'You have goals, and you have a chip on your shoulder. We have goals, and our shoulders look the same as yours -- just not as big.'"

Listen and subscribe to Tom E. Curran's Patriots Talk Podcast:

Another common criticism of Newton is when forced to stand in the pocket and pass, he's far less effective. Whitfield shot down this narrative as well.

"I cringe every time I hear people ask, 'Can he do it from the pocket?'" Whitfield said, per Keown. "Cam's extremely bright. He's nuanced. There aren't going to be any coverages where he looks up and says, 'I've never seen this before.'

He can play in the pocket -- it's what he's been doing -- but he also has the world's biggest and baddest parachute on his back, and when he's in trouble, he can just reach out and pull it.

Newton's ability to escape the pocket and run for huge chunks of yards and touchdowns is a skill we have rarely seen in the Patriots offense over the last two decades. Brady did a great job moving around in the pocket and sliding to avoid pass rushers, but he was never a threat to take off and make huge plays with his legs. 

It remains to be seen how well Newton will fit in the Patriots offense. We also don't know if he'll even win the starting quarterback job. He should receive strong competition for the role from 2019 fourth-round draft pick Jarrett Stidham.

Bet against Newton at your own peril, though.

There's no doubt he's super motivated to prove the naysayers wrong, and if healthy, he's still talented enough to help the Patriots be an AFC contender in 2020.