After drafting a pair of steals in Christian Gonzalez and Keion White, the Patriots made their first head-scratching move in the 3rd round by selecting Sacramento State safety/linebacker Marte Mapu. Confusion around the pick was understandable given Mapu’s small-school status and the fact he was unranked out of high school. Even NFL teams nearly let him slip through the cracks. But when looking at Mapu’s resume since becoming a starter in 2021, it paints the picture of a diamond in the rough.
In his senior season, Mapu earned First Team All-American honors, was named Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year, and led his team in interceptions for the second consecutive year. According to the Athletic’s Dane Brugler, he’s also a blue-collar worker who devotes a lot of time to film study, earning the nickname “silent assassin” from coaches for his humility and play style.
Who will be highest drafted snub from this week’s #NFLCombine?
Polled NFL scouts and most common reply was Sacramento State SS/WLB Marte Mapu.
Majority of 30-35 Combine omits each year are late-rounders but there’s buzz Mapu could be rare Day 2 riser.#TheDraftStartsInMOBILE™️ pic.twitter.com/eHQE0iibat
— Jim Nagy (@JimNagy_SB) February 26, 2023
Still, Mapu didn’t receive an invitation to the NFL Combine and was forced to sit out during Sacramento State’s Pro Day due to a torn pec. But the Patriots must have seen something they liked while coaching Mapu during Senior Bowl week, hosting the prospect for a top-30 visit and drafting him with a top-100 pick.
Marte Mapu would’ve jumped out the gym if he were invited to the combine
I dunno how he didn’t get a hand on this pass, but the rep reminded me of a couple people pic.twitter.com/sNXmn1AUVb
— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) May 6, 2023
New England has a track record of coaching up tweeners who possess eye-popping physical traits, with Jamie Collins and Kyle Dugger being more recent examples. It may be unfair to put such lofty expectations on Mapu so early, and the jump from FCS to the NFL is no cakewalk. His recovery from the torn pen will also be something to monitor. But Mapu has the physical tools, work ethic, and on-field mentality to become a household name in the Patriots’ system.
Here are the different ways New Englands can capitalize on Mapu’s explosiveness and versatility in his rookie campaign.
Like many first-year players, Mapu’s quickest way to the field will be on special teams, where the Patriots are rebuilding after the unit’s worst season in the Belichick era. New England concentrated on boosting its 3rd phase in free agency, bringing back standout veterans Matthew Slater and Cody Davis and signing standout Chris Board. The team also drafted multiple players with special teams backgrounds, including kicker Chad Ryland, punter Bryce Baringer, return specialist Isaiah Bolden, and the aptly-named Ameer Speed.
Mapu rarely came off the field in college, playing on the kick coverage, punt return, and field goal block teams. He even broke up a field goal attempt during his senior season.
Marte Mapu Range
Mapu’s closing speed, demeanor, and forceful tackling could make him a difference-maker tracking down ball carriers, while his patience and IQ should come in handy as a blocker.
If the heat-seeking missile’s violent, high-effort play carries over to the next level, he should earn defensive snaps sooner than later.
New England has struggled in recent years to find a coverage linebacker who compliments throwback bruiser Ja’Whaun Bentley. Jahlani Tavai was an impact player in his second season as a Patriot, but the 245 lber has been exclusively an early-down presence.
Raekwon McMillan and Mack Wilson Sr. seemed like athletic fits, but both suffered from poor recognition and couldn’t be relied on consistently, with Wilson Sr. being benched for the final five games. This forced Bentley to play linebacker on 3rd downs and obvious pass situations, where he performed admirably but was miscast.
Kyle Dugger at Linebacker
Kyle Dugger was already a pseudo-linebacker in 3-safety or “big” dime packages, using his diverse skill-set to keep offenses guessing whether he would drop into coverage or come downhill on a blitz. But mid-season, he (and to a lesser extent New England’s other box safeties) had start lining up next to Bentley in big nickel packages on early downs, which the defense uses as a counter to multiple halfback/tight end sets.
Marte Mapu in Coverage (Sacramento State)
Mapu could put an end to the coverage linebacker carousel and form a dynamic duo next to Dugger. Like his new teammate, Mapu was a man among boys in college, racking up a team-high six interceptions and 20 pass deflections over the past two seasons.
That production was no fluke, as the hybrid made several impact plays that translate directly to the NFL, looking strikingly similar to Dugger at times.
Marte Mapu in Coverage (Senior Bowl, Catapult clips from @TheLTBPodcast on Twitter)
Though Mapu was more of a defensive back in college, he’s listed as a linebacker on the Patriots’ official roster and lined up there while working with their staff at the Senior Bowl. He proved he belonged with a stellar start to practice week before missing the second half due to injury. Mapu smothered underneath zones and showed excellent patience 1-on-1, getting his hands on passes and quickly shutting down plays.
Marte Mapu Run Defense (Sacramento State)
Mapu was also a productive run defender at Sacramento State and showed the click-close to create violent collisions from the backside of runs. He also had dominant moments on the edge against tight ends, which will come in handy in New England’s ever-changing defensive front.
Marte Mapu Run Defense (Senior Bowl)
The tweener also answered concerns about his ability to hold up inside at the Senior Bowl, blowing up runs from both the front and backside by throwing his shoulder into blockers. If New England wants to free up Dugger to play more safety, Mapu could slide next to Bentley and turn what was previously big nickel into a true 3-4.
Marte Mapu Pass Rushing/Spying (Senior Bowl, Sacramento State)
Mapu was rarely asked to rush the passer at Sacramento State, but flashed some bend off the edge when given the chance and slipped Oklahoma back Eric Gray on a pair of blitz pickup reps at Senior Bowl practices. The Patriots cut Dugger loose on several blitzes last season, and Mapu’s similar athletic profile could translate well to the role. He also has the speed to hunt down dual-threat quarterbacks.
As with any prospect, there are areas of Mapu’s game that need attention. Though he’s generally a reliable tackler, he had ten misses last season. He’ll also need to be more active with his hands when engaging blockers to maintain control, but the willingness and physicality are there to defend the run and get after the QB on a limited basis.
BIG NICKEL CORNER/OUTSIDE LINEBACKER
We’ve gone over how the Patriots’ box safeties are used as linebackers in big nickel, but they also bump into the slot from these groupings to keep bigger backers from covering receivers.
New England is well-stocked in the role with Dugger and Jabrill Peppers manning the slots, which they often did at the same time from single-high structures. Jalen Mills could also factor in for certain game plans given his position switch and diverse background.
Kyle Dugger and Jabrill Peppers at Big Nickel Corner
Dugger wreaked havoc against screens and passes to the flat, and Peppers excelled as a blitzer. But if the Patriots want a more physically imposing slot combo or for Dugger to spend more time deep, Mapu would be a perfect fit as more of an outside linebacker.
Marte Mapu at Slot Corner
Mapu actually spent most of his time in the slot at Sacramento State, showing a quick downhill trigger and bad intentions to wreck plays near the line of scrimmage. In a league where offenses are going underneath more frequently due to the rise in split-safety coverages, having a thumper who can minimuze yards after the catch is at a premium.
Though not as quick or twitchy as Peppers, Mapu would offer more size and coverage upside against faster backfields, allowing New England to counter base personnel with base personnel without sacrificing athleticism.