As far as problems go, this is a comfortable one to have for the New England Patriots. With Trent Brown having returned from his stint on the injured reserve list, the they now have six proven starting-caliber offensive linemen on their roster but only five spots available in the lineup.
During their Week 10 win over the Cleveland Browns, the Patriots solved the issue in rather surprising fashion. Brown returned to the starting lineup, taking over for Michael Onwenu. Instead pf returning to his original spot at left guard, however, Onwenu was sent to the bench — despite being arguably New England’s best offensive lineman so far this season. He did see some action in a rotation with Brown, but at least for that day he was O-lineman No. 6.
The starting line, meanwhile, looked as follows:
Playing its first ever game together, the Wynn-Karras-Andrews-Mason-Brown line dominated against a talented Cleveland front seven. Quarterback Mac Jones was pressured on only 20 percent of his dropbacks (5 of 25), while the Patriots rushed for a season-high 186 yards and two touchdowns on 32 non-kneel-down carries.
The offensive line had its best outing of the season, even with Onwenu playing only 26 of 67 offensive snaps in a rotational capacity.
With the Patriots now on a short week before their Thursday night game versus the Atlanta Falcons, the Wynn-Karras-Andrews-Mason-Brown lineup should not be expected to change. How about the mini-bye after the game, though, and the rest of the season? Could New England decide to make another move up front?
Essentially, there are two potential configurations the team has to consider: moving Michael Onwenu back into the starting left guard role he held to start the season, or keeping veteran and former backup Ted Karras there with Onwenu as a high-quality backup capable of filling multiple spots along the line.
There are arguments to be made for both decisions. Let’s therefore take a look at them.
Option No. 1: Ted Karras at left guard
A former sixth-round draft pick by the Patriots, Karras returned to the organization this offseason after a one-year stint as the Miami Dolphins’ starting center. Originally brought in as a potential replacement for fellow free agent David Andrews, Karras started the season as a backup before seeing his first extended action of the year in Week 4, filling in for Onwenu at left guard.
With Onwenu and left tackle Isaiah Wynn spending time on the Coronavirus reserve list following that game, the Patriots turned to Karras — first at right guard to fill in for an injured Shaq Mason, then at left guard replacing James Ferentz. He has since started six straight games and played 400 of a possible 400 offensive snaps.
Karrad has played some very good football since his promotion to the starting lineup, but his individual outing is not be the only reason why the Patriots might keep him there even with the starting five from Week 1 now available again: Karras has shown some strong chemistry with left tackle Isaiah Wynn.
Wynn struggled earlier in the season, being forced to play next to a new left guard for the first time in his career: with Joe Thuney having left as a free agent, the Patriots turned to second-year man Onwenu to fill in. The Wynn-Onwenu pairing did not get going immediately, with the tackle especially playing some sub-par football before his Coronavirus-caused two-week absence from the starting lineup.
When he returned to the starting group in Week 7, Karras was lining up next to him — and he suddenly performed at a noticeably higher and more consistent level ever since. How much of that is due to Karras is anyone’s guess from the outside, but if the coaching staff credits him for Wynn’s turnaround it might have a hard time splitting the pair up again.
Option No. 2: Michael Onwenu at left guard
Having primarily played right guard during his college career at Michigan, the Patriots gave Onwenu extensive snaps at right tackle during his 2020 rookie season. The sixth-round pick impressed, and ended up starting 10 games at the position — all while looking like one of the best rookie performers in the entire league.
His sophomore year, however, brought a change of scenery. As noted above, Onwenu moved into the left guard spot vacated by Joe Thuney’s departure. He did perform well, but New England’s offensive line as a whole had a hard time — especially due to the tackle play.
After his stint on the Covid-19 reserve list and with Ted Karras set to fill in at left guard, the Patriots therefore Onwenu into Trent Brown’s previous spot at right tackle (Brown had been absent since early during the Patriots’ season opener). The second-year lineman started four straight games, and the line as a whole appeared to righten the ship again: Wynn-Karras-Andrews-Mason-Onwenu looked like a viable solution for the time being.
With Brown now back in his old spot, however, Onwenu was relegated to rotational duty: he played 18 snaps at right tackle versus Cleveland while Brown was being eased back in, and added five as an in-line tight end as well as two more at right guard in garbage time.
Onwenu again performed well, and his upside and long-term outlook appear to be more favorable than Karras’ — there is a reason why he started the season at left guard, and not the veteran. One could therefore argue that the line as a whole has a higher ceiling with the 23-year-old lining up between Isaiah Wynn and David Andrews rather than on the bench or as a blocking tight end.
The big question for the Patriots is now this: Is Ted Karras the solution at left guard or is it indeed Michael Onwenu? In its essence that question is one between the steady left-side lineup already in place or the potential it might have with Onwenu in the lineup.
What will New England’s coaches therefore do? As noted above, a change ahead of the Thursday nighter in Atlanta should not necessarily be expected even though it is certainly possible. A lot depends on how the left-side group performs with Onwenu at guard instead of Karras. If the coaches are confident in it, a switch is possible as early as this week but definitely during the mini-bye afterwards.
However, if the Wynn-Karras-Andrews grouping continues to be the best at executing its assignments in practice, keeping Onwenu as a high-quality backup does make sense as well. He would still have a future within the organization — he is just on the second year of his rookie contract and both Karras and Brown are free agents next offseason — but would have to make way for the best starting five for the time being.
After all, the top-five does not necessarily have to be the best five individual players but rather the best five performing as one. So far this season, Wynn-Karras-Andrews-Mason-Brown has been just that. There is no denying, however, that the upside of Wynn-Onwenu-Andrews-Mason-Brown is enticing — just like the coaching staff envisioned in training camp.