Bill Belichick reportedly became enamored with Marte Mapu during the pre-draft process. After taking a deep dive into the Patriots draft pick’s college film, it’s easy to see why.
Mapu, whom New England selected in the third round (76th overall) of the 2023 NFL Draft, is a long, fast, hard-hitting, playmaking linebacker/safety with the versatility to play multiple positions and the football IQ that Belichick covets.
The former Sacramento State standout will need to answer some important questions as he begins his pro career, and it’s unclear exactly how he’ll fit into a Patriots defense that already featured a handful of hybrid defensive backs. But he has the potential to add an intriguing new dimension to that group while also being a factor on special teams.
WHAT’S HIS POSITION?
Sacramento State listed Mapu — the Defensive Player of the Year in the Big Sky Conference last season — as a nickel back. What did that position entail? Seemingly, a little bit of everything.
Take a look at these four screenshots:
All four of those plays were from the same drive in a win over Montana last October, illustrating how multifaceted Mapu’s role was for the Hornets. He played all over the field, lining up as a slot defender, deep safety, strong safety, overhang linebacker and edge rusher defending on the defensive play call and opponent’s personnel.
The Patriots announced Mapu as a linebacker at the draft and list him as such on their online roster. The 23-year-old said in his introductory conference call that his position was “to be determined,” and Belichick didn’t offer any hints, saying Mapu’s responsibilities “might change from week to week dependent on our opponent and what we’re playing in the defense and so forth.”
We’ll know more once the Patriots begin organized team activities next week. Will Mapu practice with the DBs, as safety/linebacker hybrids Kyle Dugger, Adrian Phillips and Jabrill Peppers do? Or will he work with the ‘backers? If it’s the latter, then Mapu would be by far the lightest player in that position group.
Mapu measured in at 6-foot-3, 221 pounds at his pre-draft pro day, and New England lists him at 6-3, 216. Every other Patriots linebacker is listed at least 235 pounds, and most are over 240. Belichick has long favored bigger, more physical ‘backers over the smaller, more athletic types that have become increasingly popular around the NFL in recent years, so making that Mapu’s primary position would signal a notable shift in philosophy.
STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES
Mapu wasn’t invited to the NFL Scouting Combine, and a torn pectoral muscle prevented him from working out at his pro day, so we don’t have a full picture of his athletic profile. But his speed, power and explosiveness are plain to see on film. He can zero on a ball carrier from 15 yards away, close that distance in a hurry and finish with a violent, pad-rattling hit.
Mapu also uses that power to attack blockers as a downhill run defender, like he did on this third-and-short against Montana:
In coverage, Mapu’s football savvy shows up in his knack for positioning himself in a quarterback’s passing lanes. His 33 1/2-inch arms — the second-longest of any safety or off-ball linebacker drafted this year — also are an asset in that area.
Belichick called him a “smart kid” who “definitely understands defensive concepts.”
Mapu also has the speed to track tight ends and receivers across the field and close for pass breakups. Problems arise, though, on plays that require short-area quickness or change-of-direction ability.
We saw several instances of ball carriers evading Mapu in 1-on-1 situations. When he’s forced to break down rather than rocketing downhill through the tackle, he’s susceptible to jukes and stutter steps. The Patriots also won’t want him manned up against quicker, shiftier slot receivers.
It also remains to be seen how Mapu will handle the significant jump in quality of competition as he transitions from the Football Championship Subdivision (Division I’s lower level) to the NFL. The only two FBS teams he faced in his two seasons as a Sacramento State starter posted records of 5-7 (2021 Cal) and 3-9 (2022 Colorado State).
Mapu’s injury status is another concern, as his pre-draft pectoral surgery is likely to sideline him for at least the start of spring practice. He said he expects to be cleared in time for training camp this summer, but those lost reps in OTAs could slow his development.
As a third-round pick, it would be disappointing if Mapu never carved out a significant defensive role. But even if he can’t crack the rotation as a rookie, he projects as an instant impact player in the kicking game.
In addition to being a first-team All-American defender, Mapu was an active and disruptive special teams player at Sacramento State. He blocked one field goal last season, and we spotted standout plays in kickoff coverage and punt-return support in our film review.
Against Northern Iowa, Mapu pushed a blocker 5 yards backward and tackled the returner on the opening kickoff. Against Utah Tech, he delivered an emphatic block that helped spring a teammate for a punt-return touchdown.
The Patriots clearly prioritized improving their special teams units in this year’s draft, and that’s somewhere Mapu should be able to immediately contribute.
We mentioned the questions about Mapu’s positional fit and NFL readiness as an FCS prospect. He provided reasons for optimism on both fronts during one marquee pre-draft showcase, albeit in a limited sample size.
Mapu received a late invitation to the 2023 Senior Bowl, and though an injury that week prevented him from playing in the all-star game itself, he impressed evaluators with his performance in practice.
Playing as a traditional linebacker rather than the do-everything defender he was at Sac State, Mapu displayed ferocity as a run defender and fluidity in coverage, acquitting himself well against some of this year’s top draft prospects.
Mapu’s defensive coordinator at the Senior Bowl was Patriots D-line coach DeMarcus Covington. Belichick compared his performance there to the way Dugger, who played at Division-II Lenoir-Rhyne, shined in the same setting in 2020.
Dugger has since emerged as a multipositional playmaking force for the Patriots and should be in line for a hefty raise as he enters the final year of his rookie contract. We’ll see if Mapu — whom Belichick passed on talented prospects at wide receiver and tight end to select — can follow a similar path.