The Patriots typical inside linebacker is a larger throwback body type that brings a thump to the second level of Bill Belichick's defense.
There will always be a role on Belichick's defense for linebackers who are 250-plus pounds and can fill a gap like a defensive lineman or stand up a lead blocker. However, New England's team speed at the second level of the defense is something they've been trying to improve.
The Patriots are deploying more hybrid safeties like Kyle Dugger, Adrian Phillips, and Jabrill Peppers instead of their bigger linebackers in obvious passing situations. Plus, they signed more athletic players, such as Mack Wilson and Raekwon McMillan, with evolution in mind.
Those players, especially the three safeties mentioned, will undoubtedly have major roles in the 2023 defense. As useful as each current player is, the offensive identities of the teams' around the Patriots have put them in a situation where they need three-down performers.
New England has their thumpers in Ja'Whaun Bentley and Jahlani Tavai for early downs, and they can put their do-it-all safeties on the field for third down, but the game nowadays calls for athletic defenders at the second level that aren't situational players. When you play Josh Allen twice a year, you better have some speed on the field at all times.
The Patriots might've found the new-age linebacker they need for matchups against Allen, Mahomes, Hurts, and modern NFL offenses.
With the 76th overall selection in the third round of the 2023 NFL Draft, New England selected a lesser-known prospect in Sacramento State hybrid linebacker Marte Mapu. The 23-year-old dominated FCS competition for multiple seasons, filling the stat sheet as a senior in 2022.
Mapu finished his final year for the Hornets with 76 total tackles, 29 stops, ten quarterback pressures (two sacks), and a pretty stingy 79.6 passer rating into his coverage with two interceptions and three pass breakups. Most of Mapu's playing time came over the slot (531 snaps), in the box (249 snaps), or on the defensive line (49 snaps). He spent 92% of snaps at the first or second level of the defense at 6-3, 217 pounds.
As a non-combine invitee out of the FCS, selecting Mapu in the top 100 is surprising, but the Patriots aren't afraid to think differently or select small-school prospects. After tearing up the Big Sky Conference and solidifying that his traits could translate at the Senior Bowl, Mapu's path to New England resembles standout safety Kyle Dugger.
Dugger played his college football at division two's Lenior-Rhyne and similarly tore up the Senior Bowl to create even more draft buzz. Dugger, however, did participate in the combine, where he tested with an elite relative athletic score of 9.54 out of ten.
Unfortunately, we don't have athletic testing for Mapu because he wasn't invited to the combine and couldn't participate in his Pro Day due to a pectoral injury. Still, when you turn on Dugger and Mapu's college film, you see a varsity athlete playing against JV competition.
Mapu said he'd be ready for training camp as he recovers from the pec injury. Being behind the eight-ball as a rookie could make it difficult for Mapu to make a year-one impact. But with the Pats struggles against athletic quarterbacks and opponents with great team speed offensively, it's easy to see how Mapu could help this defense immensely.
Although there are a few different roles he could play, the hope here is that vision for Mapu is to play him as a new-age linebacker that we've all been clamoring for in Foxboro:
SIDELINE-TO-SIDELINE RANGE AND INSTINCTS (QB SPY)
Admittedly, I wasn't totally familiar with Mapu's game heading into the draft as much as I would've liked for a player they picked in the third round so that one is on me (do better, Evan).
However, after reviewing his film, I can see the intrigue from a Patriots perspective, and he has grown on me more than any draft pick they made last weekend. Starting with the most enticing traits, Mapu has excellent range, closing burst, and a nose for the football.
I won't replay all the highlights of Josh Allen hurting the Patriots on second-reaction plays where it becomes backyard football, but you all remember, and Mapu might be the solution.
For example, Sacramento State creates single matchups in their five-man rush package by blitzing the middle linebacker above. Despite having two backfield players in to pass protect, the Hornets' defensive front still flushes the quarterback out of the pocket. As a part of the rush plan, the Sacramento State coaches have Mapu lingering as a QB spy. According to Reel Analytics, it took Mapu 3.2 seconds to close over ten yards to sack the quarterback.
Mapu's closing speed and instincts to track ball carriers are all over his film, whether it's quarterbacks, running backs, or receivers in space.
Here, the offensive line is blocking straight ahead on a gap scheme when one of the Hornets' defensive linemen breaks through the line of scrimmage. Mapu has the athleticism to mirror the back as he bounces the run outside and tracks him down in the alley to make the stop.
The play speed and tracking instincts also translate in coverage. In this play, Mapu starts from a split-safety alignment. When the coverage rotates post-snap, he has the tight end on the shallow crosser in man coverage and comes all the way across the field to stop the receiver short of the line to gain on third down.
Based on the film and player tracking data, it's evident that Mapu has the play speed and instincts to close on ball carriers in a hurry.
ATHLETICISM TO PLAY IN COVERAGE
Mapu's closing speed to make plays mainly coming downhill at the line of scrimmage was on full display above, and he also has the athleticism to drop into coverage. Mapu's coverage skills stood out in practices at the Senior Bowl.
In this play, Mapu has an underneath zone assignment out of a basic cover-two shell. When the tight end runs a hitch into his area, Mapu closes on the catch point to break up the pass.
Although that play was straight-forward, here's another example of his standout athleticism. This time, the offense runs a play-action split zone concept with the fullback as a lead blocker (after running wide zone lead all period). Mapu recovers from a few false steps into the line of scrimmage and gets underneath the route over the middle to tip the pass on its way through.
On his Sacramento State film, Mapu was a problem for opposing offenses when they ran wide receiver screens. He clicked into them instantly, either slipping or going through blockers and had the range to come from long distances to blow up perimeter screens.
According to Pro Football Focus, Mapu had a 77.2 coverage grade with Sacramento State last season. He has the physical tools to add a plus-coverage linebacker to the Patriots defense.
PHYSICALITY TO PLAY IN THE BOX
By now, you're probably saying, okay, he can cover ground, but can his 217-pound frame hold up in the box? Is he a three-down player or a pass-game specialist?
Mapu was a high-end run defender in college (85.9 grade), and his ability to convert speed-to-power allows him to work through blockers. If you're questioning the competition level, let's stick to the Senior Bowl.
Here, the American offense is running wide zone lead with the fullback leading the way for the ball carrier. Mapu clicks into the blocking scheme, fires downhill, and goes right through the fullback to the ball. If you can fit zone lead like that, you can play linebacker in the box.
Mapu's hit stick as he worked through blockers on one-back and two-back zone schemes drew plenty of eyebrow raises from the crowds in Mobile – the dude packs a punch behind his pads.
There are two elements of doubt that we have to discuss because, let's face it, college production and a strong Senior Bowl week don't guarantee that Mapu will be a good pro.
First, Mapu has the length at 6-foot-3 to add more mass to his frame, which would help improve his projection as an off-ball linebacker. For comparison, Bills All-Pro linebacker Matt Milano plays at 223 pounds, while former Pro Bowler Deion Jones hovers around 222 pounds.
At 217 pounds, Mapu needs to add more density to his frame, as those two have in an NFL strength and conditioning program, to hold up in the box consistently. But plenty of guys do it, and Mapu weighs exactly the same as Dugger, who also logs plenty of snaps in the box.
Along with bulking up his frame, there's also a coaching element, or, really, a philosophy component. Many read the Mapu selection as foreshadowing Dugger's departure next offseason. Dugger, a 2020 second-round pick, is a 2024 unrestricted free agent. Theoretically, the Patriots may use Mapu in a similar role to replace Dugger next season.
However, my hope is that Mapu is here to complement Dugger, not replace Dugger, as a true inside linebacker rather than a hybrid safety. This would also mean that the Pats are willing to play a 220-pound linebacker on all three downs, replacing their throwback prototypes.
New England's coaching staff allowing Mapu to play at the point of attack on early downs is a change in philosophy, but with his physicality and captain Ja'Whaun Bentley next to him, they'll still have plenty of pop and Bentley's size to offset Mapu's smaller frame.
The Patriots hopefully are adapting at linebacker to keep pace with all the modern NFL offenses.