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Should NY Jets splurge on top free agent OT Michael Onwenu?

Michael Onwenu
Michael Onwenu

The New York Jets have to decide if Michael Onwenu is worth a hefty contract

We’ve covered nine offensive linemen so far in our free agent profile series. Yet, we haven’t covered the man who has a strong chance of earning the largest contract among offensive linemen in free agency this year: Michael Onwenu.

Onwenu is a durable 26-year-old player with a multi-year track record of high-level production. He is an outlier in a market where most of the linemen with intriguing stats are accompanied by a concerning red flag that drags down their value, whether it’s injury issues, being on the wrong side of 30, coming off a suspicious one-year-wonder season, or potentially being a scheme beneficiary.

With the cleanest resume of any free agent lineman, Onwenu is poised to receive an enormous stack of cash from somebody. Should the New York Jets try to be that team?

We all know the Jets badly need offensive line help, so adding Onwenu would be a no-brainer in a vacuum. However, with a tight cap-space budget and potentially up to three starting OL spots that must be filled, it’s fair to wonder whether allocating a large chunk of cap space to Onwenu would be a wise usage of their resources.

Let’s dig into Onwenu’s profile to figure out whether he is worth a substantial investment from the Jets.

Jets free agent profiles:

Basic info

  • Age: 26.1
  • Height: 6-foot-3
  • Weight: 350 pounds
  • College: Michigan
  • Experience: 4 years (Drafted Round 6, Pick 182 by New England in 2020)
  • Teams: Patriots (2020-present)
  • Previous contract: 4 years, $3.5M (Rookie contract)

Measurables

  • Data from 2020 Combine (via Mockdraftable)
  • Percentiles among all-time offensive line prospects

Mike-Onwenu-Patriots-Jets-2023

  • Height: 6’3″ (14th percentile)
  • Weight: 344 pounds (96th)
  • Arm length: 34.375in (78th)
  • Hand size: 10.5in (85th)
  • Bench press: 26 reps (58th)

Role

Onwenu has played several different roles for the Patriots in his career. He’s played 1,548 snaps at right tackle, 1,425 snaps at right guard, 402 snaps at left guard, and 92 snaps as an extra lineman.

After playing snaps at all four of those positions across his first two seasons (primarily RT, making up 57% of his snaps from 2020-21), Onwenu settled in as the Patriots’ starting right guard in 2022, starting all 17 games at right guard. Onwenu began 2023 in the same role, starting his first four games of the season at right guard. He moved to right tackle for his fifth game and would start his final 11 games of the season at that position.

2023 performance

Great two-way production

Statistically, Onwenu was one of the best two-way linemen in the league. He put up good numbers in both phases.

In pass protection, Onwenu allowed pressure on 4.6% of his pass-blocking snaps (23 pressures on 505 pass-block snaps), ranking 17th-best out of 83 qualified tackles. In net pressure rate, which adjusts the player’s pressure rate based on his frequency of true pass sets, Onwenu rose a couple of spots, ranking 15th-best (83rd percentile). His true pass set frequency was 46.3%, identical to the league average among tackles.

Onwenu also earned a 72.1 run-blocking grade at Pro Football Focus, which ranked 20th (77th percentile). Onwenu was one of 11 tackles who ranked in the top 20 of both categories.

If you combine Onwenu’s percentile ranking among qualifiers in both categories (82.9 in net pressure rate and 76.8 in run-blocking grade), he comes out with an average of 79.9. This placed 11th-best among all tackles (min. 200 pass-block snaps) and third-best among free agent tackles:

  • 1. Penei Sewell, DET (100.0)
  • 2. Braden Smith, IND (92.7)
  • 3. Terron Armstead, MIA (92.1)
  • T4. Trent Williams, SF (90.9)
  • T4. Rob Havenstein, LAR (90.9)
  • T6. Tristan Wirfs, TB (87.2)
  • T6. Kaleb McGary, ATL (87.2)
  • T6. Kolton Miller, LVR (87.2)
  • T6. Trent Brown, NE (87.2) – Free agent
  • 10. Tyron Smith, DAL (82.3) – Free agent
  • T11. Michael Onwenu, NE (79.9) – Free agent
  • T11. Christian Darrisaw, MIN (79.9)

You can see in the table below that Onwenu’s production ranks favorably compared to all free agent linemen. When coupled with his youth at only 26 years old, it’s clear that he is one of the most appealing all-around free agents – and arguably No. 1 at tackle.

2024-NFL-Free-Agent-Offensive-Line-Ranked

Good job preventing sacks and hits despite bad QBing

Onwenu excelled at preventing costly pressures despite playing in front of two shoddy quarterbacks in Mac Jones and Bailey Zappe. Onwenu was charged with allowing just three sacks and two hits on 505 pass-block snaps, a sack-plus-hit rate of 0.99% that ranked 15th-best out of 83 qualified tackles.

Clean with penalties

Onwenu only committed four penalties on 850 offensive snaps. That’s an average of 4.7 penalties per 1,000 snaps, which ranked 23rd-best among qualified tackles. The league average for tackles was 7.3.

Comparing 2023 performance to previous track record

These numbers were nothing new for Onwenu. He’s been generating stats of this caliber throughout his whole career.

Onwenu’s career pressure rate is 3.2%, even better than the 4.6% mark he posted in 2023. In fact, that was his career low.

In 2022, when he played a full season at right guard, Onwenu was one of the best pass-blocking guards in the league. He ranked third-best among guards with a 2.2% pressure rate.

The stellar run blocking is also a constant. Once again, the impressive mark he posted in 2023 (73.2 PFF run-blocking grade) was actually his career low. He was slightly better in 2022 at 73.1 when playing right guard. In 2021, he posted a whopping 89.8 mark (near-even split between LG and RT), and in 2020, he was at 84.9 (majority at RT with some games at RG and LG).

Even the penalty success has been sustained. Yet again, the four penalties he had in 2023 were a career-worst. For his career, Onwenu has 10 penalties on 3,468 offensive snaps, a paltry average of 2.9 per 1,000 snaps.

When your worst season is as good as Onwenu’s was in 2023, that is a tremendous sign. His resume is as stable and reliable as they come. For four consecutive seasons, he consistently excelled in all three of pass blocking, run blocking, and penalty avoidance. To boot, he did it while playing three different positions.

Scheme fit

This is easily the biggest caveat in Onwenu’s resume. While his success has been stellar (on paper, at least), he might only be a fit for certain teams.

Onwenu has an enormous build at 350 pounds and comes from a gap-heavy run scheme in New England. In 2023, he had a gap-blocking rate of 54%, per PFF, ranking eighth-highest among tackles. For comparison, the Jets’ tackles had a rate of only 39.8%, which is around the league average.

With his body type and scheme experience, it’s fair to wonder if Onwenu can fit with a team that doesn’t run a gap-heavy offense. We don’t have the data to label him as a subpar athlete since he didn’t test in the pre-draft process, but Onwenu’s pre-draft scouting reports support the idea that he might not fit well with a team that needs athleticism from its linemen. NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein wrote of Onwenu in 2020, “Powerful and wide, Onwenu’s natural play strength is somewhat offset by his below-average athletic ability.”

A lot can change in four years, but Onwenu’s listed weight has only increased since then, rising from 344 at the combine to 350 today. Add in the fact that he got drafted by a gap-heavy team, and we just don’t have much evidence that suggests Onwenu would fit with a team like the Jets that does not build its offense around the power run game.

Durability

Playing 64 out of 67 possible games in his career (95.5%), Onwenu has a strong durability track record.

Two of his three missed games came in 2023. Onwenu was sidelined in Weeks 1 and 6 with an ankle injury. In between those games, Onwenu had two games where he played less than 100% of the snaps. From Week 7 onward, Onwenu never missed a snap.

Projected cost

Spotrac projects that Onwenu will earn $13.6 million per year on the open market. PFF is projecting $14.5 million per year while Over The Cap has him at $10.4 million.

However, some of the recent contracts signed by coveted offensive linemen in free agency suggest that Onwenu’s value could go way higher than that.

Last year’s free agent cycle included two high-level tackles in Onwenu’s age range: Jawaan Taylor (25) and Orlando Brown Jr. (26). Taylor signed for four years and $80 million. Brown Jr. signed for four years and $64.1 million.

I wonder if Onwenu could push toward the Brown range, or even as high as Taylor. The lack of studs in this year’s free agent market will make him a hot commodity, therefore inflating his value. If you miss out on Onwenu, you’re simply not getting a durable lineman in his mid-twenties who has put up multiple seasons of high-level production. I can see teams having a bidding war for him.

Onwenu’s statistical resume is far better than Taylor’s was before he landed his deal with Kansas City. Brown was in Onwenu’s ballpark, although Onwenu still takes a slight edge.

This is where the conversation of film-versus-stats begins. If Onwenu is who his stats say he is, I think he’s going to compete with Taylor’s deal. If not, then he will probably land around the estimations made by Spotrac and PFF.

So, is Onwenu as good as his pristine stats suggest? Or will NFL teams value him to a lesser degree than his stats do?

There’s no position above the offensive line when it comes to the disparity between players’ stats on paper and how the league actually values them. We often see players like Taylor fetch huge deals despite lackluster stats, whereas guys who look great on paper (take Jermaine Eluemunor, for example) are not paid accordingly. This occurs due to the unreliability of offensive line metrics.

Offensive linemen were completely ignored by the statistical world for more than a century following the birth of the sport. All you had were games played, Pro Bowl appearances, and All-Pro appearances. It wasn’t until the mid-2000s that sites like PFF started publishing metrics that evaluate offensive line play.

Relatively speaking, these metrics are really young. They are still being perfected, and there remains a long way to go. At this point in time, there isn’t a single offensive line metric that has proven itself to be an accurate measure of an individual player’s true performance level. If metrics like PFF grades and pressure rate were perfect, we’d see a greater correlation between these metrics and contract valuations, but we’re not there yet. Teams consistently view linemen far differently than the stats; this occurs at all positions, but none more so than the offensive line.

Teams are surely using some degree of analytics to evaluate offensive linemen, but they’re primarily relying on the film to decide what they think linemen are worth. This is why some guys get paid more or less than people on the outside might expect. When you dig into a lineman’s film, there’s a good chance he is going to look significantly better or worse than his stats suggest.

Onwenu’s value will come down to what teams think of his film. As Jets X-Factor’s Andrew Fialkow noted in his film breakdown of Onwenu (definitely check that out), Onwenu’s pass-blocking film is difficult to evaluate since New England was getting the ball out extremely quickly. This is an example of something that could cause teams to be less impressed when watching Onwenu’s film than they would be if they just looked at his pressure numbers.

Overall, Fialkow viewed Onwenu as a good player but not someone worth overpaying for. If NFL teams agree, I think Onwenu will land around Spotrac’s estimation of $13-14 million per year.

Flag Check

I recently wrote a pair of articles that analyzed what the Jets can learn from their hits and misses in free agency. The idea was to determine which green flags and red flags at the time of the signings turned out to be the best predictors of what would happen.

Let’s take a look at Onwenu’s profile and see which aspects of it are reminiscent of the Jets’ hits (like D.J. Reed and Tyler Conklin) and which aspects are concerningly similar to the Jets’ whiffs (like Laken Tomlinson and C.J. Uzomah).

Green flags

Onwenu is young, durable, and has produced similarly impressive numbers throughout all four years of his career. There’s a lot of stability and reliability in his resume. We’re not talking about a one-year-wonder.

The versatility is also appealing. Onwenu can be pursued as either a guard or a tackle.

Red flags

Scheme fit is the biggest concern with Onwenu. He is a behemoth who is not known for his athleticism and has played his whole career on a team that is known for its power run game.

It’s also fair to wonder whether Onwenu’s pass-blocking numbers benefited from New England’s scheme. Jets fans, you guys have watched plenty of New England’s offense in recent years. What was that offense’s defining trait in the Mac Jones era? That’s right, checking the ball down and then checking it down some more.

Led by Jones, the Patriots relied heavily on short and quick passes. Jones had the second-quickest average time to throw in 2023 at just 2.42 seconds. The Pats rarely asked their linemen to block for too long. Did this inflate Onwenu’s numbers to make him look better than he really is?

This reel of true pass sets against Khalil Mack doesn’t paint a great picture of Onwenu’s ability to hold up one-on-one against skilled edge rushers who can chain moves together.

In fairness, that was Onwenu’s worst pass-blocking game of the year statistically – he got hit with a season-high of five pressures allowed, so it’s not as if his season-long numbers overlooked his struggles in that game.

Ultimately, the biggest question with Onwenu is the film-versus-stats discussion we had earlier. It’s never wise to sign a player solely based on his stats. The Jets’ pro scouting department will be tasked with closely analyzing Onwenu’s film to determine his true value compared to other tackles. Specifically, they must determine how Onwenu would fare in their scheme.

The verdict

Onwenu seems like a good player, and he has a lot of green-flag traits that you like to see in free agents. He’ll deservedly earn a handsome deal this offseason.

However, I don’t think Onwenu makes sense for this Jets team.

In their current situation – considering their modest cap flexibility, relatively weak draft capital, and large number of holes on offense – if the Jets are going to splurge on a lineman, he has to be someone who offers a high chance of success. I don’t think that’s the case with Onwenu. He is not an ideal scheme fit, and on top of that, I’m suspicious of his numbers. I have a feeling they aren’t completely legitimate and would fall off if he left his familiar environment in New England.

The Jets will probably be looking to fill three starting spots on their offensive line (assuming Laken Tomlinson is cut). If they allocate $13 million per season or more to Onwenu, that would leave them in a rough spot when trying to address the other two starting spots. Using that much cap space on one lineman would be justifiable if it was a slam-dunk star, but Onwenu feels too risky to be worth that much money.

Perhaps if Onwenu’s value falls to around $10 million per season or less, the Jets could argue his talent is worth the risks. Still, even at that point, I’m just not sure Onwenu is a fit for this particular scheme.

I think the Jets’ wisest move would be to avoid Onwenu, but don’t get me wrong – he is a good player with plenty of positive traits. I’m curious to see if they go after him, and if so, how aggressively.

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pat brady
pat brady
3 months ago

When you watch the tape on Fant you see a guy who moves his feet really well. I don’t see that with this guy.

Jets71
Jets71
3 months ago
Reply to  pat brady

He’s better inside that at OT, but he’s durable and can block. Also, if you watch tape of Fant’s last season with the Jets you won’t like it. I’m not saying Fant is a bad option for the Jets, I’m just saying I don’t trust Fant as a full time LT. He’s better than what they have for sure. Onwenu at G would be helpful.

I don’t think comparing Fant and Onwenu are an apples to apples comparison.

Jets71
Jets71
3 months ago

I know scheme is a concern, but we could use some toughness on the OL, and we do have some “gap” concepts. I think with Tippmann at center, Onwenu, and AVT that right side could be special. I thin in addition to, and perhaps because of injuries the Jets’ OL needs a bit of nasty. They have to start pushing people around, if it takes some “gap” concepts then do it.

I like him, and he’s solid. Ok he may never totally meet the contract but he’ll be a guy they can count on week to week.

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