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Replay: Best of Patriots.com Radio Thu Apr 18 - 02:00 PM | Tue Apr 23 - 11:55 AM

After Further Review: Evaluating Bailey Zappe, Marte Mapu and Others in the Patriots Preseason Finale

The Patriots preseason finale gave us an extended look at one promising rookie and was a final showcase for other roster hopefuls.

PS3-2023-AfterFurtherReviewPDC

Less than a year ago, a real sector of the Patriots fan base was pulling for second-year quarterback Bailey Zappe to start over Mac Jones. 

For those who caught Zappe fever, the numbers in last season's messy operation on offense were mostly in your favor. The 2022 fourth-round draft selection outplayed Jones in the box score, with a 34.5 QBR while averaging 8.5 yards and +0.065 expected points added per pass attempt. Comparatively, Jones's splits were 36.1 QBR, 6.8 YPA, -0.031 EPA/play. 

Along with having better production in the passing game in a much smaller sample size, Zappe quarterbacked New England's two highest-scoring outputs of the 2022 season against the Browns (38) and Lions (29). Plus, he rattled off ten unanswered points by providing an immediate spark coming off the bench in a Monday night loss to the Bears. 

The Zappe truthers had some facts on their side to make the case, making it a compelling debate. As a rookie, Zappe's success came in watered-down game plans that were play-action heavy and extremely quarterback-friendly. On the other hand, Jones was asked to do a lot more, which is why film junkies such as myself never caught The Fever. 

With offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien installing a highly complex playbook with a huge Rolodex of passing concepts, it's been apparent in training camp that Mac is the superior quarterback. Unlike the simplified scheme that former offensive play-caller Matt Patricia put Zappe in, O'Brien's offense is all on the QB. The quarterback is responsible for setting protections, making pre-snap checks at the line, reading coverage structures to calibrate reads, and making post-snap adjustments with the receivers to properly convert routes to beat coverages. 

As a result, Zappe has been boom-or-bust in camp practices all summer long, flashing big-time throws occasionally and having long strings of uncesssful plays. As he develops as a full-field processor and experiments with different arm angles to combat a smaller frame, Zappe's ball placement, decision-making, and timing have all taken hits. This preseason, Zappe has only completed 58.8 percent of his passes with a completion percentage over expected of -6.7, down significantly from his rookie season (70.7 completion rate, +0.2 CPOE).

With the Patriots starting quarterback sitting out the preseason finale, Zappe was under center for 33 of New England's 42 offensive plays against the Titans on Friday night. The Pats backup struggled, but one must acknowledge that Zappe hasn't been dealt the best hand this summer to provide the full context. New England's offensive line has been in shambles, and the trickle-down effect has impacted the blockers working in front of Zappe, while in Friday night's preseason finale, he primarily threw to receivers fighting to make an NFL roster. 

The lackluster supporting cast led to a handful of "no chance" plays, four sacks, and three fumbles for Zappe. However, objectively, Zappe missed some throws on progression reads. For quarterbacks, there are different types of plays. There are rhythm throws, such as quick-game or play-action concepts, and then there are progression reads, where the quarterback goes one, two, three through a progression and makes the best decision based on the coverage.

Starting with our first example, Zappe is having a difficult time making the right decisions with the ball in progression read concepts. In this audio breakdown, the Pats are running a mesh-sit-wheel concept where the quarterback's options are typically to throw the wheel route immediately if he likes the matchup on the back, work shallow drag to deep drag, and then find the "sit" route against zone or off-man coverage if the other routes are covered. Above, the man coverage by the Titans defense leaves the sit route open, but Zappe doesn't progress to it.

Later, Zappe passed up an open throw on a dig route against cover-two to Thyrick Pitts, deciding to pull the ball down to buy time in the pocket. Once he passes up the initial chance, the Pats backup misses running back Kevin Harris sneaking behind the coverage on the backside.

Zappe's regression, if you want to call it that, took him out of the running to push Jones for the starting job. However, my instinct isn't to panic about his standing as this team's backup. With the right play-calling, Zappe is a perfectly capable QB2 who can still execute a good chunk of O'Brien's playbook, making it wise for the Pats to keep just two QBs on the initial roster. The Fever might be back to normal for the time being, with Jones proving to be a more consistent passer and proficient field reader, but that doesn't mean Zappe is out of a job.

Here are three more takeaways and quick-hit film notes from the Patriots preseason finale After Further Review:

The New England Patriots take on the Tennessee Titans in a preseason game at Nissan Stadium on Friday August 25, 2023.

1. Patriots Third-Round Rookie Marte Mapu Impressive in Preseason Debut

Following offseason surgery to repair a torn pec, Mapu's preseason debut was put on hold for a few weeks after spending most of camp in a red non-contact jersey. Mapu shed the jersey about ten days ago, but as part of a slower buildup, he only saw game-action in the preseason finale.

Although it's never perfect for a rookie in his first taste of pro football, Mapu made a solid first impression with plenty of positive plays that will project forward. As we've seen in practice, the Patriots used Mapu in a variety of roles with snaps at all three levels of the defense: 14 at free safety, 11 in the box, five over the slot, two on the D-Line and one at wide corner to make up his 33 defensive snaps on Friday night. Mapu handled underneath zones, split-safety roles, post-safety assignments, man coverage, and played the run from various depths.

The third-rounder from Sacramento State's versatility and ability to mentally handle so many different roles/alignments is impressive, as are his movement skills and instincts. Before we get to the coverage snaps, Mapu's explosiveness and range as a tackler is extremely exciting, especially when you consider a potential role against mobile quarterbacks.

In this play, Mapu is playing post-safety when Titans running back Tyjae Spears bounces a zone-lead scheme to the outside. After Spears stiff-arms Jack Jones to get in the open field, Mapu reaches a max speed of 19.25 MPH and travels nearly 36 yards to make the tackle. It's been a while since the Patriots have had a 230+ pound athlete who can cover that much ground that quickly.

Mapu's night in coverage started with him rotating down to the second level from depth as a safety. As the coverage rotated, Mapu occupied the curl/flat short zone in a cover-three structure. The quarterback tried to hit the running back in the flat. Mapu's closing burst was on full display as the back juggled the ball into a drop, but he would've made the stop anyway.

Then, Mapu got higher-stress coverage assignments in the deeper parts of zone structures and man coverage assignments on the Titans tight ends.

Here, Mapu is playing the deep hole in Tampa-2, where he needs to carry any inside verticals aiming to split the two safeties. As number three to the left side of the formation breaks across the field, Mapu wisely passes him off to the safety and falls off onto the backside route instead, getting quarterback Malik Willis to hold the ball and take a sack.

The Pats rookie also had good coverage on an end zone target matchup against a tight end. Mapu knows he has inside help from safety Joshuah Bledsoe, so he plays with outside leverage, forcing the tight end into his leverage to make a play on the ball. Titans tight end Josh Whyle gets away with a subtle push-off to create late separation. Otherwise, that's competitive coverage by Mapu to force an incompletion.

Mapu's play speed translated from the practice field to the game field, while his instincts in coverage to play to his help and sift through threats in zone are solid for a rookie. The only knocks from this tape were two missed tackles, one on a bad angle to the runner, while the other was friendly fire on a bang-bang play. Mapu was also part of a coverage bust on a 30-yard completion, where it looked like he was expecting a switch in man coverage with Josh Bledsoe when the tight end and back intersected over the middle. Tough one to say who was at fault, but those are coachable moments.

We've been clamoring for the first-year LB/S to play at the linebacker level due to his explosive closing burst and range in coverage, which could be the missing ingredient for this defense. Mapu projects as an early-down safety and a sub-package linebacker who could ideally help New England stop spread offenses with mobile quarterbacks.

2. Has EDGE Josh Uche Earned More Early-Down Snaps This Summer?

In his first three seasons with the Patriots, Uche, who broke out a year ago with 11.5 sacks, has been almost exclusively used as a situational pass-rusher in Bill Belichick's defense.

Out of 793 career snaps, Uche has only played 125 snaps against the run, or 15.8%. Even in his breakout third season, Uche was only on the field for 37.8% of the defensive snaps because the Patriots haven't viewed the 245-pound rush linebacker as an every-down player.

With the 24-year-old entering a contract year, he'll likely get a significant payday if he replicates his 56-pressure, 11.5 sack campaign regardless. But proving that he's a well-rounded player might get him paid even more by Belichick or another team in free agency. This preseason, the Patriots have given Uche opportunities to showcase his run defense, giving him the start and ten snaps, six against the run, in a game where other defensive regulars sat.

Although it's using his best traits for a more upfield style, Uche has produced three stops and registered a tackle for loss in run defense this summer. Above, Uche anticipates the zone block from the tight end, using his quickness to swim around the block and meet the back in the backfield.

Uche has also shown improvements as a post-up edge setter, where his lower-body flexibility allows him to win with good pad level and a twitchy upper-body to press blocks on the edge.

Along with star edge rusher Matthew Judon, the Patriots typically rely on sturdy edge-setters such as Jahlani Tavai and Anfernee Jennings to handle early-down work. Plus, second-round pick Keion White projects as an end-of-the-line defender at a stout 285 pounds.

Those players have more mass on their frames and knock-back power to play the early-down brand that Belichick covets. However, Uche has shown he can make a positive impact in the running game this preseason and would add another upfield playmaker to the run defense.

The Patriots will likely continue to rotate Uche as a pass-rusher, with the sturdier edge-setters handling run situations. But it was good to see him flash in different ways this summer.

3. Second-Year RB Pierre Strong is Explosive, But One Area in Particular Holds Him Back

Behind lead-back Rhamondre Stevenson and top backup Ezekiel Elliott, the Patriots have been waiting for second-year running backs Pierre Strong and Kevin Harris to flash.

In some ways, their lack of production in their second training camps led New England to sign Elliott, with the former Cowboys star joining the team following an uninspiring performance for the year-two backs against the Texans in the preseason opener.

Although Harirs scored the game's lone touchdown in the preseason finale, Strong's skillset is the most intriguing blend of speed and elusiveness out of the "other" backs on the roster. Harris has managed only 46 yards after contact and three missed tackles forced on 25 attempts this preseason. He's a straight-line power back and nothing extraordinary as a ball carrier.

As for Strong, the home run speed and elusiveness flash in the open field, like when he weaved through the defense for a positive play on a screen pass in Friday night's loss. However, other than when he's schemed into space on screens or tosses, Strong doesn't seem to find open space often enough, leaving yards on the field.

Strong's vision between the tackles is a work in progress. As broken down above, he has a good blend of straight-line burst and lateral agility to jump cut out of tackles. But he doesn't always feel running lanes developing after his initial move at the line of scrimmage, causing himself to get bottled up in traffic rather than explode to daylight as his athleticism should allow.

The Patriots have two bruisers at the top of the running back depth chart in Elliott and Stevenson, leaving a need for a change-of-pace back to offer a speed element. Strong should step into that role. He has the athletic traits, but his vision is holding him back.

4. Quick-Hit Film Notes From Patriots-Titans

  • Ronnie Perkins likely saved his roster spot: QB hit, four hurries, three run stops. He was a speed-to-power force in the pass rush and showed excellent post-up technique as an edge-setter in the run game. When healthy, Perkins was good this summer.
  • I'm struggling to see it at tackle for Sidy Sow. The rookie gets overextended and plays too high to generate movement in the run game or drop anchor in pass-pro. And he has a short corner and is predictable with his punch technique in pass protection. I hate dumping on a first-year player switching positions. But it's so tough to get meaningful reps in-season to develop backups nowadays, and Sow has a long way to go. I can't imagine the plan is to start him in Week 1 versus Philly.
  • Riley Reiff got a few slabs in this one looking for work in pass protection, and was solid on his combination blocks before the injury. He'd be fine at right guard.
  • Assuming it translates against better competition, Anfernee Jennings's lateral quickness to be an effective "wrap" rusher on stunts and win with inside moves has really improved.
  • Although he was a long shot either way, Malik Cunningham should return to playing quarterback. Cunningham has so much to improve on for an NFL future as a receiver: hands, route technique, timing, etc. It just isn't going to work out for him as a wideout. There's enough promise for him to develop into a serviceable backup QB to a mobile starter. For example, he'd be a good fit in Baltimore backing up Lamar Jackson.
  • If the Pats can harness Sam Roberts's aggression, his play strength is legit. He just needs to work on finding/seeing the ball to avoid some of his over-pursuing moments. Roberts will be a tough cut if that's what it comes down to on the D-Line.
  • Carl Davis is a two-gapping menace on the nose who will stick around whether he makes the initial roster or not. He's as stout an IDL as they have against the run.
  • I'm once again advocating for second-year G Chasen Hines. His work in the run game consistently stands out as a people-moving combination blocker at the point of attack. He can pull, and block in the screen game, but his punch timing and balance in pass protection is still in the developmental stages, which could push him off the roster.
  • Rookie center Jake Andrews needs to add more mass to his lower half to handle NFL power, which makes me wonder if a redshirt year on injured reserve where he can get into the weight room full-time is in his future. Andrews has the foot speed and snarl to play center in the league but gets off-balance playing through contact.
  • James Ferentz and Andrew Stueber…ya, not making the team.
  • Thyrick Pitts needs to work on adjusting to the ball and releasing off the line of scrimmage versus press coverage. But he's a big target who can build up speed pretty well. He is an interesting developmental player to keep around on the practice squad.
  • I was hoping that TE Matt Sokol would build on a positive performance in Green Bay, but his in-line blocking was subpar in this one. Sokol is a practice squad candidate.
  • Although my expectations were always low, I still expected to see more from Scotty Washington this summer. He was invisible in the passing game and a liability as a blocker. Another year on the practice squad, at best, for him.
  • Good for Calvin Munson. He played his butt off and made some impressive explosive plays. Not sure it will be enough, though.

DISCLAIMER: The views and thoughts expressed in this article are those of the writer and don't necessarily reflect those of the organization. Read Full Disclaimer

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