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.

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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.

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'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 Julian Edelman let Cam Newton know about Patriots' complex playbook

How Julian Edelman let Cam Newton know about Patriots' complex playbook

Remember when Cam Newton jokingly compared the Patriots' playbook to "calculus" after signing with New England last month?

Turns out that wasn't his own assessment. (Not yet, anyway.)

Rather, it was Julian Edelman who made Newton aware of what he was dealing when the quarterback called his new Patriots wide receiver for the first time.

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"We were both excited just to be on the phone with each other," Newton told reporters Friday in a video conference. "Then all of a sudden he just said, 'Hey bro, this (explicit) is calculus.'

"He said it and it was just funny. From that whole 15-minute conversation, that's the only thing that I just remembered: Calculus."

The Patriots playbook that Tom Brady spent 20 years mastering is notoriously complex and has stumped talented veterans like Chad Ochocinco and Reggie Wayne. Edelman has dealt with that playbook for a whole decade, so it's no wonder his comparison stuck with Newton.

Not that the 31-year-old QB is intimidated by learning a challenging offense after nine seasons with the Carolina Panthers.

"At the end of the day, football is still football and you just can’t make too much on it than what it already is,” Newton said of the playbook. "(Offensive coordinator) Josh (McDaniels) has been there every step of the way as well as (quarterbacks) coach Jedd (Fisch). Just been hammering away. All the quarterbacks have been trying to learn this whole system from what it is."

Newton admittedly faces a tall task picking up the Patriots' offense in short order without the benefit of the on-field workouts of a traditional training camp.

The three-time Pro Bowler has his means of getting up to speed, though: Newton is a "visual learner" who famously relied on a large three-ring binder in Carolina stuffed with notes on the Panthers' offense.

"We all have our different methods of how we (learn) and go about different ways to retain as much information as possible,” Newton said. "I don’t think the binder is actually here, but some type of retention methods have adapted towards New England."

Newton has a few more weeks to study, but his first test -- the Patriots' 2020 season opener against the Miami Dolphins on Sept. 13 -- is rapidly approaching.

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For Josh McDaniels, adapting offense means tapping into Cam Newton's superpower

For Josh McDaniels, adapting offense means tapping into Cam Newton's superpower

Josh McDaniels wouldn’t trade his time with Tom Brady for anything.

But the Patriots offensive coordinator did point out Friday that those times Brady wasn’t at his disposal are very valuable right now as the Patriots offense does its post-Brady pivot.

“I’m thankful for the experiences that I’ve had when I didn’t have Tom,” McDaniels said on a video conference call. “Believe me, no one was happier to have him out there when he was out there for all the years I was fortunate to coach him.

"But I would say I did have some experience with the Matt Cassel year (in 2008), which I learned a lot about how to tailor something to somebody else’s strengths, we had to play that four-game stretch (in 2016) with Jacoby (Brissett) and Jimmy (Garoppolo), I thought that was helpful. And I was away for three years. So trying to really adapt … it’s not changing your system, it’s adapting your system to the talents and strengths of your players.”

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How will the Patriots offense change now that Brady’s gone has been a dominant topic of discussion this offseason. The six-time Super Bowl winners' strengths are well-documented and hard to replicate – absurd accuracy, poise, pocket-presence and the ability to decipher and manipulate defenses at will. Part of the reason they’re hard to replicate is that it took him a dozen years of monkish devotion to get where he was. Nobody’s got time for that.

So, after a couple of decades building a tower out of wooden blocks, the blocks are knocked down and scattered. And McDaniels starts building again. Same blocks. Different-looking structure.  

“(We need to) adapt (the offense) to the players that we have,” said McDaniels. “So, again, you just have to keep telling yourself, ‘Do I really want us to be good at this? Or are we good at this?’ There’s a fine line between really pushing hard to keep working at something that you’re just not showing much progress in vs. ‘Hey, you know what, we’re a lot better at A, B and C then we are D, E and F, why don’t we just do more A, B and C?” I think as a staff we’ve really had a lot of conversations about those kinds of things.”

McDaniels has discussed in past seasons how developing an offense is a trial-and-error process. The difference this year is there is no chance for the “trial” portion. No joint practices. No preseason games. Obviously, no OTAs or minicamps.

“We can’t make any declarations about what we’re good at yet because we haven’t practiced,” McDaniels acknowledged. “I think everybody’s chomping at the bit, eager to get out there and start to make a few decisions about some things that we want to try to get good at, and if we’re just not making a lot of progress then we just have to shift gears and go in a different direction.

“But I’m going to lean on my experience and then I’m going to lean on the staff, coach Belichick, just to, (say), ‘Let’s be real with ourselves. Yeah, we used to be good at that. We’re not doing so hot at it so let’s just scrap it for now and move in a different direction.”

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Obviously, a direction they’ll move in will most likely be powered by the mobility of whoever the starting quarterback is, Jarrett Stidham or Cam Newton.

McDaniels pointed out that a player with the size, power and mobility of Newton does change things.

“It’s certainly not something I’m accustomed to using a great deal but you use whatever the strengths of your players that are on the field allow you to use, to try to move the ball and score points,” he said. “So whatever that means relative to mobility at the QB position, size and power, quickness, length, height with receivers … you go through the same thing many different times.”

Newton, said McDaniels, is the same as any other player who brings a unique talent.  

“I remember when you get a new receiver group … our receivers have changed quite a bit in terms of some of them were bigger … Randy Moss was a bigger guy and then we’ve had some smaller guys like Wes Welker and Danny Amendola, and then you have tight ends that are more fast straight-line players and then you have guys like Gronk and those kinds of players,” he pointed out.

“Regardless of what the position is, I think you try to use their strengths to allow them to make good plays and if that’s something we can figure out how to do well and get comfortable doing and feel like we can move the ball and be productive then we’re going to work as a staff to figure out how that works best, and try to utilize it if we can.”

In other words, when you have a player with a superpower - Moss' speed, Welker's quickness, Gronk's size, Brady's brain, Newton's power - , you tap into said superpower. ASAFP.