Bill Belichick came out of the 2023 NFL draft having upgraded the New England Patriots at every level of defense, in the kicking game and even at wide receiver. It would have been a completely successful recruiting mission if Belichick had also found a way to add to the team’s less than ideal options at right tackle.
Those options are “not ideal,” according to Chad Graff of The Athletic. He questioned whether the Patriots truly believe they are “really set on Riley Reiff, Calvin Anderson or Conor McDermott as their right tackle?”
Reiff’s status in particular is in question for Graff, who noted how the 34-year-old “wasn’t a starter from the get-go for the Chicago Bears, then they wanted to move on from him. Same for Anderson with the Denver Broncos.”
The struggles experienced by Reiff and Anderson in 2022 have Graff wondering if guard Mike Onwenu is set for a position switch. Trent Brown is a lock at left tackle, but the Patriots are rolling the dice on the other side.
Patriots Reluctant to Move 3-Year Pro
Belichick declared Onwenu’s “built to play guard” last season, per Graff, and it’s easy to see why the veteran head coach wants to keep the three-year pro inside. Onwenu has established himself as a quality starter along the interior since being drafted in the sixth round in 2020.
The 25-year-old started last season strong, grading among the best at his position in both pass and run-blocking, per Brad Spielberger of Pro Football Focus.
Pass-blocking is where Onwenu thrives most, surrendering “just one sack, but just two quarterback hits in 17 games,” according to MassLive.com’s Mark Daniels.
His expertise protecting the pocket makes Onwenu a natural candidate to slide over and replace Marcus Cannon at right tackle. Especially since the Pats added two guards via the draft, Eastern Michigan’s Sidy Sow in Round 4, followed by UCLA’s Antonio Mafi in the sixth.
Those moves have been interpreted by WBUR producer Khari Thompson as future planning in case the Patriots don’t want to pay Onwenu, who is a free agent in 2024.
If the Patriots are looking ahead, Onwenu could still be safe, provided he switches to tackle a year from now. In the meantime, Reiff, Conor McDermott and Calvin Anderson all look like stop-gaps at best on the right, so Belichick would be wise to search what’s left of the free-agent market for an alternative.
Slim Pickings Left for Patriots in Free Agency
Cannon is still on the market, but there’s a reason he’s out and Reiff is in. The latter has been in the league since 2012, but he’s struggled to establish himself in his last two stops, floundering with the Bears after declining with the Minnesota Vikings.
Reiff should have the inside track to replacing Cannon, but there are still options in free agency. Admittedly, those options are far from inspiring, but an experienced road-grader like George Fant or Ja’Wuan James could be worth a one-year deal.
James is an accomplished and versatile blocker who has endured a nightmare run of injuries. He’s torn his left Achilles tendon twice and made a mere four starts since 2018.
While he’s a risk, James is also a former first-round pick, just like Reiff, and one the Patriots know well from five seasons with AFC East rivals the Miami Dolphins. Giving James a year to prove himself on a team-friendly contract would provide the Pats with credible depth at right tackle and a reclamation project that could pay huge dividends if it succeeds.