The Patriots came away with a 12-man rookie class and an early emphasis on defense headlining the 2023 NFL Draft for New England.
New England's defense was the third-ranked unit in Football Outsiders' DVOA metric last season but wasn't as impactful against elite competition, which has been the case over the last few years; dominant against average to below average, but missing the level of performance needed to truly shut down top NFL offenses.
New England's first-round pick, Christian Gonzalez, has shutdown corner potential as my top-rated prospect in this class for the Patriots on day one. Adding a power-rushing defensive end in Keion White bolsters the defensive line, and the Pats might finally adapt at linebacker.
Marte Mapu was the small-school surprise for the Patriots in the third round. However, Mapu's skill set should make Pats fans intrigued. The Sacramento State product is an explosive linebacker prospect with eye-popping closing speed and the athleticism to play in coverage.
The Patriots favor thumping linebackers with bigger frames, such as Ja'Whaun Bentley and Jahlani Tavai. With Mapu, they might have a new-age linebacker who can run and cover.
Although it was disappointing to see the Patriots wait until day three to address the offense, their first three draft selections will hopefully take the defense to the next level.
As enticing as the defensive talent is, it's fair to wonder where the influx of talent is coming from on offense after waiting until the sixth round to draft a pass-catcher. There needed to be more than the two sixth-rounders to say the Pats improved the 2023 offense via the draft, and they're banking on their free-agent additions. In fact, the head coach said as much in his comments on Friday night.
"I think you always try to do what's best for your team. There's a lot of different ways to build a team. This is one part of it. Free agency was part of it. Didn't sign a lot of defensive players in free agency," Belichick said. "Most of the signings were on offense – JuJu [Smith-Schuster], Mike [Gesicki], Riley [Reiff], Calvin [Anderson]."
New England's two fliers in the sixth round at wide receiver, Kayshon Boutte (LSU) and Liberty's Demario Douglas, have upside. Boutte was a consensus top-five receiver in this class before a bumpy 2022 season and pre-draft process, while nobody is a bigger fan of Douglas than me.
Still, the Patriots didn't address offensive tackle at any point in the draft, and the two sixth-round dart throws at wide receiver means it's on the free-agent class, quarterback Mac Jones, and offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien to elevate this offense to a competitive level.
Here is a rundown with thoughts on every Patriots selection from the 2023 NFL Draft:
First Round, 17th Overall: CB Christian Gonzalez, Oregon
The Patriots began the draft with my favorite first-round pick in my five-plus years covering their drafts. Gonzalez has an elite athletic profile, the size to play on the boundary (6-1, 197), and impressive hip fluidity as a blup-chip talent with CB1 potential. Gonzalez is silky smooth with 4.38-speed, which made him a top prospect in the class, but his smarts in zone and match assignments made him my top-rated corner. Gonzalez is scheme versatile, has the top-end cover talent to project him shadowing elite receivers, and could return Bill Belichick's defense to the days when they had a Law, Revis, or Gilmore in the secondary.
Second Round, 46th Overal: DE Keion White, Georgia Tech
White is a toolsy power rusher with an elite athletic profile (9.92 RAS) and above-average length to create problems with his explosive upper-body power. The Georgia Tech product isn't a bendy, turn-the-corner rusher with a noticeable first step. He's a linear athlete with some stiffness in his movements. But he can power through the pocket, with an 18.9 pass rush win rate (sixth-best in this class), and press-and-shed as a two-gapping five-technique. My biggest concern watching his film pre-draft was a lack of a pass-rush plan and a lack of impact plays. White needs to develop a pass-rush toolbox, building off his effective long-arm bull rush, which is where defensive line coach DeMarcus Covington and skill coach Joe Kim go to work. If he can develop effective counters, White can translate the disruptive reps into productive ones. White will likely play with his hand in the dirt as a 3-4 defensive end, with the ability to kick further inside on passing downs.
Third Round, 76th Overall: LB/S Marte Mapu, Sacramento State
The pick growing on me the most is the FCS linebacker and Senior Bowl standout from Sacramento State. We've been clamoring for a new-age linebacker with explosive closing burst and coverage upside, which describes Mapu to a tee. Mapu has a nasty downhill trigger to fire through the line of scrimmage and make forceful contact on ball carriers. He's also nimble and sudden enough to make plays in space. However, he needs to win with his athleticism because he was engulfed at times at the Senior Bowl by blockers who caught up to him.
Mapu stood out during American practices down in Mobile, similar to Kyle Dugger before the 2020 draft. Will the Pats allow a 220-pound linebacker, and he's really a second-level inside linebacker, not a safety, to play on all three downs? Along with his availability in camp, as he recovers from a torn pec this offseason, Mapu's projection largely depends on the coaching staff's willingness to play an undersized linebacker in a major role. Deion Jones is the ceiling.
Fourth Round, 107th Overall: C Jake Andrews, Troy
The Patriots taking a center prospect at some point isn't surprising, but it's earlier and, of course, a different center prospect than we anticipated. New England decided to go with another Senior Bowl center in Andrews, who has 37 career starters at center and right guard. Andrews has a stocky build at 6-foot-3, 305 pounds, and stood out as an interior run blocker in Mobile. Interestingly, the Patriots prioritized interior offensive linemen over offensive tackles. But, with David Andrews turning 31 before camp, the newest Andrews enters a competition with 2022 undrafted rookie Kody Russey to back up the Pats captain.
Fourth Round, 112th Overall: K Chad Ryland, Maryland
The Patriots are the first team since the Raiders in 2000 to draft a punter and kicker in the same draft. It's not surprising to see the Pats select a kicker. After the 49ers selected Shrine Bowl MVP Jake Moody at the end of the third round, New England traded up in the fourth round to take the second-best kicker in the class. Ryland has a huge leg, hitting over 60 percent of his kicks from 50-plus yards, and is a kickoff specialist. He also has experience kicking in bad weather. If you want, you can take this as an indictment, but Ryland is my favorite pick in the fourth round.
Fourth Round, 117th Overall: G Sidy Sow, Eastern Michigan
The Patriots love themselves a jumbo-sized power-blocking guard prospect, with Sow as the latest road grader to join the program. Sow needs a ton of development from a mental standpoint. He struggles to diagnose moving parts after the snap and adjust his blocking path while working in the running game. But nobody will question Sow's ability to strike, drive, and leverage blocks. With starting guard Mike Onwenu entering the final year of his contract, Sow has the skill set to project as a right guard in New England's system.
Fifth Round, 144th Overall: G Atonio Mafi, UCLA
Yup, another wide-bodied guard in the middle rounds. Mafi is my favorite of the three interior linemen the Pats selected on day three, with an in-person look at the Shrine Bowl. He's another player, like Mapu, who wasn't invited to the combine. He's also another prospect, like Sow, who overpowers and sustains blocks with rock-solid playing strength. Mafi can move the line of scrimmage in the run game, shows adequate upper-body torque to turn defenders out of gaps, and pass-rushers won't go through him. Mafi's quickness to mirror twitchy pass-rushers is a concern. But he has starter upside because he's so solid in close quarters.
Sixth Round, 187th Overall: WR Kayshon Boutte, LSU
The Patriots took a chance on a boom-or-bust prospect in Boutte, who would've been in the top 50 conversation a year ago. Boutte's dicey finish to his collegiate career, middling production, and lackluster combine (4.99 RAS out of ten, 4.5s 40) pushed him down the board. However, Boutte has legitimate NFL upside with sudden movements to uncover and the ability to churn out yards after the catch in bunches (6.4 YAC per catch). His first two seasons in Baton Rouge put him on the map as an NFL prospect, and if the Pats get that version of Boutte, they'll have a steal – a perfect day-three flier. My pro comparison, if it works out, is Jarvis Landry.
Sixth Round, 192nd Overall: P Bryce Baringer, Michigan State
New England has two new specialists on their roster with the selection of the consensus top punter in the sixth round. Baringer led the nation in net punting and had several 60-plus yards punts last season. Sometimes, he even out-kicked his coverage, and he'll need to add some hang time to his punts in the pros. But he has the talent to be an NFL punter.
Sixth Round, 210th Overall: WR Demario Douglas, Liberty
The Patriots won me over with the sixth-rounders at wide receivers, especially Douglas. After an in-person viewing at the Shrine Bowl, Douglas's vertical burst with 4.44-second speed and fluidity through his cuts give him NFL-caliber separation talent. According to SportSource Analytics, Douglas's open receiver rate of 83% ranked ten percent above the FBS average. He's a smaller slot-only type and needs to be more precise with his routes. But Douglas has the quick-twitch movement skills to uncover, making DBs at his level of competition look silly at times. New England passing on shifty slots such as Zay Flowers and Josh Downs led them to Douglas. His vertical burst and double moves are similar to Flowers.
Sixth Round, 214th Overall: CB Ameer Speed, Michigan State
Speed lived up to his last name at the Michigan State Pro Day with a 4.33-second 40-yard dash at 6-3, 209 pounds. Speed is an athletic size-speed specimen who was a core special teamer for the Spartans, which is his most likely path to an NFL roster. Speed loses the ball in the air and doesn't play to his size in terms of physicality at the line of scrimmage in press-man. But he has Tariq Woolen-like athletic traits and could become a regular in the kicking game.
Seventh Round, 245th Overall: CB Isaiah Bolden, Jackson State
The Patriots rounded out their draft class with another size-speed cornerback prospect with enticing physical tools but are raw when it comes to the finer details of the position. Bolden ran a 4.33-second 40-yard dash at 6-2, 201 pounds at his Pro Day. The Jackson State product also led the FCS in kick return average (36.9) in 2021.