Michael Onwenu

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.

 

Next Pats Podcast: How Michael Onwenu mastered art of 'burping' opponents

Next Pats Podcast: How Michael Onwenu mastered art of 'burping' opponents

A note to NFL defensive linemen: If Michael Onwenu catches on with the New England Patriots, you may be in for some unpleasant experiences.

The Patriots traded up to the sixth round of the 2020 NFL Draft to select the 6-foot-3, 344-pound offensive guard out of Michigan.

Onwenu improved a lot over his four years in Ann Arbor, earning All-Big Ten honors after his junior and senior seasons.

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According to his college offensive line coach, Onwenu also learned a devastating new skill. Here's Michigan o-line coach Ed Warinner with Phil Perry on the Next Podcast describing how Onwenu went from helping opponents up to ... "burping" them:

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We had to get him out of the habit of helping people up that he'd knock down. Then he started liking the fact that, 'Hey, I'm knocking all these guys down, I'm leading the team.' ... Then we started getting him to when he knocked people down, he'd kind of fall on top of them and pin them. He transitioned into that pretty well.

When Mike falls on you, we have some pictures in our meeting room of Mike laying on top of people, and you could just see their facial expressions. We kind of have a name in our room: We call it 'burping' a guy. It's when you fall on a guy and you're that big, the air comes out of their lungs. It sounds like they just burped. So we'd be like, 'Mike, did you burp him?'

That doesn't sound pleasant.

Onwenu had plenty of opportunities to "burp" opponents while leading the Wolverines in knockdowns during his senior year. Warriner says that's a testament to the 22-year-old's exceptional lower-body strength.

"He can move people 1-on-1," Warriner said. "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.' ... That takes a grown-ass man, and Mike can do that."

Warriner also pointed out that Ownenu moved some impressive players in the talent-laden Big 10, recalling a game against Ohio State in which Onwenu stopped star defensive end Chase Young dead in his tracks.

"Chase Young tried to come inside and beat him 1-on-1, and he locked him out. It was over," Warriner said. "When Mike gets his hands on you and gets locked out, it's over."

Onwenu has an uphill climb to playing time in New England: Joe Thuney and Shaq Mason are the starting guards with Jermaine Eluemunor, Hjalte Froholdt and Najee Toran also on the depth chart.

If the Michigan product can "burp" opponents at the NFL level, though, we'd imagine he'll stick around. Check out more of the Next Pats Podcast on the NBC Sports Boston Podcast Network or watch on YouTube below:

 

Patriots sign draft picks Devin Asiasi and Michael Onwenu to contracts

Patriots sign draft picks Devin Asiasi and Michael Onwenu to contracts

The New England Patriots have been rapidly locking up their draft picks in the wake of the 2020 NFL Draft. They had signed six of their 10 picks coming into the day and now, they have eight signed.

The Patriots announced that they agreed to deals with third-round tight end Devin Asiasi and sixth-round offensive guard Michael Onwenu. They also confirmed the signings of third-round linebacker Anfernee Jennings and seventh-round center Dustin Woodard.

Now, just Kyle Dugger (No. 37 overall) and Dalton Keene (No. 101 overall) remain unsigned.

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Asiasi and Onwenu both have ties to Michigan and current Patriots quarterbacks coach Jedd Fisch, who was at Michigan as passing game coordinator from 2015-16 and was UCLA's offensive coordinator and interim head coach in 2017. Asiasi played at Michigan as a freshman in 2016 before transferring and following Fisch to UCLA. Onwenu spent his entire four-year career at Michigan.

Asiasi broke out in his final year at Chip Kelly's program. He caught 44 passes for 641 yards and four touchdowns and was considered to be a rising prospect leading up to the 2020 NFL Draft. He should get a chance to earn a role at tight end considering the dearth of talent that the Patriots had there last year.

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As for Onwenu, he started 35 games over the course of his final three years at Michigan, and all but one of them came at right guard. He's a massive man (6-3, 344) and is an excellent run blocker who should provide depth and may eventually challenge for a starting guard job in 2021 if the Patriots part ways with Joe Thuney.