Retaining Mike Onwenu should be a top priority for the Patriots in free agency | NFL News, Rankings and Statistics

• Ownenu’s versatility is his calling card: Despite never lining up as a tackle at Michigan, he has played more than 1,500 snaps at right tackle in his four years as a Patriot, as well as more than 1,800 between the two guard spots.

• PFF’s 25th-ranked overall free agent: Onwenu ranks fourth among offensive linemen in PFF’s free agency rankings.

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Just as soon as Tom Brady departed New England after the 2019 season, the Patriots found another sixth-round steal out of Michigan: offensive lineman Mike Onwenu.

Brady’s impact is unreplicable, but Onwenu has been one of the most important members of the Patriots’ offensive line since 2020 and a player the team can’t afford to lose, as he’s set to hit free agency when the league year begins in mid-March. Onwenu ranks 25th overall in PFF’s free agency rankings and fourth among offensive linemen.

Onwenu’s calling card is his versatility. Despite never lining up as a tackle at Michigan, he has played more than 1,500 snaps at right tackle in his four years as a Patriot, as well as more than 1,800 between the two guard spots.

Productivity has accompanied that versatility. Below is a look at Onwenu’s PFF grade at every position he’s lined up at throughout his career.

2020 83.5 (112 snaps) 79.7 (185 snaps) 79.2 (616 snaps) 79.9 (14 snaps)
2021 81.3 (290 snaps) 60.0 (2 snaps) 84.6 (276 snaps) 78.7 (89 snaps)
2022 N/A 80.0 (1,044 snaps) N/A N/A
2023 N/A 54.0 (194 snaps) 78.6 (656 snaps) N/A

Except for a down year at right guard in 2023, Onwenu has been well above average at every position he’s played, though he hasn’t been asked to move around as much in recent years. This type of positional flexibility allows the Patriots to get creative with their offensive line lineups in the event of an injury or a potentially exploitable matchup.

This versatility is increasingly important for the Patriots to maintain heading into 2024, with question marks shrouding their offensive line as things stand. Left tackle Trent Brown is not expected to return. Left guard Cole Strange has underperformed since being drafted as a first-round pick in 2022 (though injuries contributed to that in 2023). Center David Andrews will be 32 when the season starts and has considered retirement in the past. Right guard Sidy Sow had a very up-and-down rookie season as a fourth-rounder out of Eastern Michigan. There’s also former rookie fifth-rounder Atonio Mafi as a depth piece, but he’s still learning to play offensive line, as he was a defensive tackle for much of his college career.

As of this writing, the Patriots have the second-most cap space in the NFL, according to Over the Cap, at just a hair under $70 million. Onwenu is a franchise-tag candidate, but that is more likely to go to fellow 2020 Patriots draft class member Kyle Dugger.

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The question becomes what kind of contract Onwenu should receive, as that will largely change based on whether he’s viewed as a guard or a tackle. The best comparison is the Green Bay Packers‘ Elgton Jenkins, who boasts a similar to Onwenu as a versatile lineman who plays guard and tackle — and well. At 26 years old, the same age Onwenu is now, Jenkins received a four-year, $68 million extension from the Packers, $24 million of which was guaranteed. PFF’s current projection for Onwenu is four years, $58 million, with $33.25 million guaranteed.

The total value of Jenkins’ deal makes him the fourth-highest-paid guard in the NFL but puts him tied for 15th among tackles. PFF’s projection would make Onwenu the fifth-highest-paid guard but 21st among tackles, though it’s important to note PFF’s projection has more guaranteed money than what Jenkins got. It’ll be interesting to see whether Onwenu is treated like a guard or a tackle this offseason, which could alter his free agency offers if he reaches the open market.
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