Patriots ‘Shoe-String French Fry’ Tipped to be Steal of Draft Class

Adrian Phillips

Getty The New England Patriots drafted a "shoe-string french fry" for the second level of their defense.

Bill Belichick going all defense with the New England Patriots’ first three picks of the 2023 NFL draft probably irritated a few onlookers. After all, the team fielded the 26th-ranked offense in the league last season, but experts think Belichick got a pair of steals for the side of the ball where he made his name.

Second-round pick Keion White is a perfect fit for Belichick’s multiple defense, but third-rounder Marte Mapu can make a bigger impact earlier. That’s the view of CBS Sports’ Emory Hunt, who told the With the First Pick Podcast (h/t Garrett Podell of CBS Sports) Mapu’s “built like a shoe-string french fry at 6’3, 217. This is Bill Belichick going for versatility. He can play safety, he can play down at linebacker, and he can cover shallow. He’s a defensive player who can move across the back end of a defense, match up on game day and have success.”

Identifying an obvious role for Mapu isn’t easy given his hybrid traits, but that same flexibility will make him an asset in New England. Playing safeties at the linebacker level has become a common ploy for Belichick in recent seasons, with Adrian Phillips and Kyle Dugger crucial to the Pats’ fluid nickel fronts.

‘Tweener Draft Pick Has Plenty of Fans

Hunt isn’t the only one anticipating big things from Mapu. The former Sacramento State star’s other admirers include NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah.

That’s lofty praise, but Jeremiah’s endorsement is echoed by Diante Lee of The Athletic, who noted how “at 6-3 and a shade under 220, Mapu is a terrific click-and-close tackler in the run game, ranging out on the perimeter to make stops.”

Lee also pointed out how facing offenses “dominated by outside zone and the spread” means the Patrios need a player with Mapu’s range to help “close passing windows quickly.”

The message here is simple. Belichick needed to get more speed onto the field to counter the burners within the AFC East.

It makes sense since rivals the Miami Dolphins love to free dynamic wide receivers Jaylen Waddle and Tyreek Hill on crossing routes. Then there’s Josh Allen and the Buffalo Bills attacking the middle of the field with tight end Dawson Knox and wideout Gabriel Davis.

Mapu is uniquely qualified to handle the challenge and bring more oomph against receivers travelling between the numbers.

Draft Gem Set for Key Role

Using linebackers and safeties to beat up receivers running slants and crossers has been Belichick’s go-to move as far back as Super Bowl XXV. That was the occasion when, as defensive coordinator of the New York Giants, Belichick designed a “big nickel” defense to punish Bills’ receivers Andre Reed and James Lofton.

The same gameplan helped the Pats upset the then-St. Louis Rams, owners of the ‘Greatest Shown on Turf’ offense, in Super Bowl XXXVI. Those teams executed a strategy Belichick still employs today. It’s why he needs more players like Phillips, Dugger and Mapu.

The latter’s athleticism and flexibility in space reminds Taylor Kyles of Patriots on CLNS of Dugger and ex-Pats linebacker Jamie Collins.

Both comparisons are apt since Mapu is likely to spend time at linebacker and safety as a rookie. He’ll be an asset jamming tight ends at the line, hammering slot receivers and attacking the pocket on the blitz.

Those varied responsibilities are a lot to ask of a small-school prospect, but Mapu proved he won’t be defined by his size, no matter where he plays. He didn’t look out of place filling inside gaps and stuffing the run at the Senior Bowl, per the event’s executive director Jim Nagy.

Plays like this indicate there might even be a future for Mapu as a full-time linebacker next to  Ja’Whaun Bentley on early downs.

Mapu’s best early fit will be as the safety/linebacker hybrid in nickel sets, leaving Dugger, who is entering the final year of his rookie contract, to spend more time in the secondary. Mapu could also take some snaps away from 31-year-old Phillips, who is a free agent in two years.

Wherever Belichick deploys Mapu, he and White will be two more roving game-wreckers for a defense set to shape shift more often in 2023.

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