Michael Onwenu, a rookie sixth-round draft pick, has started every game for the Patriots this season and has proved capable of playing either tackle or guard. Winslow Townson/AP Images for Panini

The New England Patriots didn’t know what they had when they selected offensive lineman Michael Onwenu in the sixth round of the 2020 draft.

If they did, he might instead have become first-round rookie Michael Onwenu.

The University of Michigan product has started all 15 games and currently rates as the seventh-best offensive tackle in football, according to Pro Football Focus player grades. Playing a new position at right tackle, Onwenu has dominated as a run blocker and has allowed fewer than one pressure per game.

The 23-year-old will be a precious piece of the Patriots’ foundation moving forward, given his versatility and All-Pro potential.

It was his raw talent, at 6-foot-3 and 344 pounds, that first caught the team’s eye. Onwenu crushed 1-on-1s early in training camp, stonewalling his teammates with rare strength and improved foot quickness. This was no ordinary late-round lineman.

So at the start of one practice in August, Bill Belichick approached Onwenu, a college guard, to say he’d be moving temporarily to tackle. Since then – save for the times when Onwenu successfully filled in as an injury replacement at left or right guard – the switch has been permanent. Playing tackle is a cinch for the rookie, who said he hasn’t been surprised by his NFL experience.

“I would say it’s been what I expected in terms of being harder than college, obviously,” Onwenu said. “A lot, a lot better athletes and a lot of different stuff defensively. So I think it’s matched my expectations.”

Belichick shared Wednesday that the Patriots initially believed Onwenu would be competing to make the roster as a backup guard. But once Onwenu proved he was among the team’s five best offensive linemen, he forced himself onto the field. With left guard Joe Thuney, the team’s best O-lineman, set to hit free agency again this offseason, it’s possible Onwenu could replace him.

Or he might simply stick as the starting right tackle.

“We’ll just have to take a look at that here at the end of the season and see where things are next year and have some kind of a plan,” Belichick said. “Maybe it’s some kind of combination of both. I don’t know, but he’s opened a lot of doors and opportunities for himself.”

Thuney, a third-round pick in 2016 and a Pro Bowl caliber player, is widely viewed as the team’s best draft pick of the past 5-6 years. The Patriots extended themselves to keep Thuney from leaving in March by slapping him with a $14.7 million franchise tag at the dawn of free agency. This coming spring, during a franchise-defining rebuild, they won’t necessarily need to extend again, thanks to Onwenu, their new best draft pick in recent team history.

THE PATRIOTS could be awfully thin at inside linebacker on Sunday against the New York Jets.

Six players missed a raw practice on Thursday afternoon, including linebackers Josh Uche, Anfernee Jennings and Terez Hall. Factor in Ja’Whaun Bentley’s shoulder injury that kept him out of Monday night’s loss to Buffalo, and the Patriots are really banged up at the position.

David Andrews and Shaq Mason were also absent, but safety Devin McCourty returned to the practice field in a limited capacity after sitting out Wednesday because of a shoulder injury.

If Uche, Jennings, Hall and Bentley are unable to play Sunday, Cassh Maluia (eight defensive snaps this season) and Jack Cichy (three weeks on the roster) could be elevated from the practice squad, and the Patriots could also let Chase Winovich moonlight there, as he did against the Ravens earlier this season.

Wide receiver Julian Edelman wasn’t spotted again, so his season is very likely over.

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