The Patriots are no strangers to taking a chance on a hard-hitting small-school defensive prospect and 2023 third-rounder Marte Mapu is the latest, an ideal fit as a new-age hybrid defender who combines length, speed and smarts to further blur the lines between a defensive back and linebacker.
Mapu got started with football at an early age, playing Pop Warner football around his hometown, Hawthorne, California, playing almost every position on the field, including quarterback. Mapu shared with Patriots.com that a one-time meeting with Junior Seau, whom he considers an uncle, helped him further focus on football, including the vital importance of film study. That development led Mapu to become a three-year letterman at Hawthorne High School, playing quarterback and wide receiver on offense, and a multi-tool defensive back on the other side of the ball.
After receiving limited FBS attention, Mapu signed with Sacramento State where he'd take advantage of the extra year of COVID eligibility, spending six seasons there that included a redshirt freshman season and a season cancellation in 2020.
"Marte was a great player for us, great person, high character, high football, IQ, loved being around the facility, he was always around, he's always trying to learn and get better," newly named Sacramento State head coach Andy Thompson, who was Mapu's defensive coordinator dating back to 2019. "He was part of a very successful run here, winning the championship the last three years, and he was a huge part of that and it just got better as his career went. So I saw a lot of change in his body physically, mentally, and we asked him to do a lot. We asked him to play safety, nickel linebacker, special teams, and he just took on every challenge and was very productive."
That versatility has been a hallmark of the Patriots defense in recent seasons, where a diverse array of defensive backs like Adrian Phillips, Kyle Dugger and Jabrill Peppers have the ability to move all over the field while bringing an increased level of athleticism. But even among that group, Mapu has some unique traits that could help him carve out a role that will help him standout and fill a larger array of roles and responsibilities.
"It's a smaller school so not a lot of exposure at Sac [Sacramento] State," said Bill Belichick following Mapu's selection. "But spent time with him at the all-star games, spent time with him in personal visits. So yeah, there's a lot. The exposures are the exposure. Sort of like, different, but kind of like with [Kyle] Dugger, Lenior-Rhyne, Senior Bowl visit, sometimes that's where those guys - that's how you have to do it."
No matter where he ends up, Mapu checks a lot of boxes both on and off the field for New England.
"He doesn't say a lot but he was a very explosive player," said Thompson. "It's very rare to have a guy be able to lead your team in interceptions and then also play at the line of scrimmage and be so physical. He's big enough to be a linebacker in the box, but also covered slot receivers so we just haven't had a lot of guys with that size and the ability to play multiple positions and not get confused. He could handle it because he studied the game so much."
The seeds planted by Seau when Mapu was 10 years old were an important part of who he became as a player, starting with that dedication to breaking down the film. "He enjoyed that part," said Thompson. "He was always coming in and watching it. He's always asking questions, why are we doing this? What is your thought process and I was a defensive play caller so went through a lot of different scenarios with me, he just loves football. And he likes to talk about it and he was always interested and curious and it really helped him his last two years especially developing into the player that he was because he did so much film study."
Mapu finished his college career at Sacramento State by earning First Team All-American honors, Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year and First Team All-Big Sky, helping lead the Hornets to the quarterfinals of the FCS playoffs. It was a successful cap to his college career that opened the gateway to the NFL.
Following the season, Mapu was a late invite to the Senior Bowl where he turned heads by looking comfortable and fast even against a jump in competition, as he took on, and defeated, some of the best draft-eligible players from around the country.
"I was excited because of how well he had prepared and done everything in his power to be his very best and so when you have guys that do that and they get an opportunity to shine on a bigger stage you're always excited as a coach because that's their dream," said Thompson of Mapu's opportunity to join the Senior Bowl. "Most guy's dream is to play at the next level but a lot of guys won't put in the work that it takes to get to be their very best and I feel like he left here with no regrets because he put in the work and it was it was exciting to see him play well down there in the Senior Bowl."
His performance in Mobile led to a busy spring for Mapu, as various coaches and scouts from around the NFL did their best to catch up on the small school prospect who didn't look out of place going against the FBS standouts. Unfortunately, it wasn't all positive though, as Mapu tore his pec during training, an injury that should be healed by training camp but could limit his ability to get an early jump on things in OTAs and Minicamp.
Thompson said the interest was so extensive he wasn't surprised to see the Patriots snap Mapu up in the third round.
"I wasn't surprised because there was so much interest leading up to the draft," said Thompson. "There were quite a few phone calls that people made and they were excited about him and created a lot of interest in how he interviewed and how he had done, so I wasn't really surprised but I think he's got a great future there."
Now, Mapu will arrive in Foxborough with a bevy of skills and traits that should all mesh well into the Patriots gameplan defense, which can shift from week to week.
"We'll have to see how it goes," said Belichick of how Mapu might be deployed. "That might change from week to week dependent on our opponent and what we're playing in the defense and so forth. He's shown versatility and his skillset. He's a smart kid. Definitely understands defensive concepts and what they did and how they were doing it. So when we get a chance to work with them, we'll start to figure that out."
"I would describe my game by just having the fundamentals," Mapu told reporters after being drafted. "I feel like I can run, cover, hit and make plays. I have good instincts. So I feel like that's just how it is for me. The position I'm going to play, you're going to see in the fall. I don't really know how that's going to fall into place. That's going to be to be determined, but wherever I am, I'm going to work to be the best at it."
Thompson liked the thought of what Mapu might develop into under Belichick's tutelage.
"You respect what he's done and obviously the great coach that he is, and I'm sure he'll have Marte going in the right direction," said Thompson. "It'll be exciting to watch."
Patriots Draft Pick Profile
Strengths: Efficient mover, little wasted energy or steps... Physical finisher who brings the thunder with his shoulder, arrives quickly and with decisiveness... Played a variety of defensive roles and has traits to be a core special teams contributor as well... Played nickel corner, safety, and linebacker roles as the "Rover" in Sac State's defense... Long frame, well proportioned and could add some weight for more in-the-box responsibilities... Dedicated film watcher which shows in his recognition and reaction.
Weaknesses: Tore right pec during Spring 2023 which could affect his early availability... Smooth and athletic but long speed hard to discern... Facing a significant jump in competition but didn't look out of place at Senior Bowl... Will be a 24-year-old rookie.
Personal: Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year and First Team All-American in 2023. Led team in INTs as a senior and had a blocked field goal.
Comparable NFL player: NFL player: Kyle Dugger - Dugger and Mapu have their differences, but ultimately both are small school hybrid defenders who play with a physical edge. Mapu doesn't have Dugger's college return skills, but the two players should have similar roles in the Patriots defense spending most of their time close to the line of scrimmage and in short coverage zones.
By the numbers
|2020 Season Cancelled|
|PLAYER NUMBERS||Combine Position Average|
|Height: 6-3||6-0 1/4|
|40 Yards: n/a||4.56|
|Bench (225): n/a||17.6|
|Vertical Jump: n/a||36"|
|Long Jump: n/a||10'2"|
What they're saying …
Chad Reuter/NFL.com - Mapu has been praised for his versatility, but he might need to prove he can excel in at least one department -- whether in run support or in coverage -- at the next level. He lacks short-area athleticism and long speed, so his man coverage might be limited to tight ends. He is highly instinctive from short zone and is a very willing hitter when playing near the box. It won't be a surprise if Mapu adds weight and locks in as a backup weakside linebacker in a 4-3 defense as a pro.
View photos of Patriots third round pick, linebacker Marte Mapu in action at Sacramento State.