Small school, big hitter: Patriots pick Marte Mapu 'just buckles people'
Perry: Patriots draft pick Marte Mapu 'just buckles people' originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston
Jim Nagy has seen enough football in his life to understand when a player has rare striking ability. It didn't take long for the executive director of the Senior Bowl, a former scout for both the Patriots and Seahawks, to hear that Sacramento State's Marte Mapu was one of those players.
"It was unusual," Nagy said of the pop Mapu exhibited during two days of work in Mobile, Ala. "The force he hits with and the impact and the noise it makes when Marte hits people, wait 'til training camp, man. You’re going to be hearing it a bunch.
"I always say some of the best players are the ones you can scout with your ears and not just your eyes. You can scout Marte with your ears."
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Mapu suffered a pec injury during the Senior Bowl that could limit his participation in the runup to his rookie year. But in his short time during the premier collegiate pre-draft All-Star game, Mapu made enough of an impression to be deemed by Bill Belichick as worthy of the No. 76 overall pick in the third round.
The clips littered the internet prior to draft weekend. Who was this guy from Sac State? He weighed around 220 pounds but threw his body around like an old-school linebacker who weighed 30 pounds more than that.
Old-school football types, of course, loved it.
Nagy watched part of one Senior Bowl practice with Mike Tomlin, and Mapu lit up a fullback near the line of scrimmage in such a way that the Steelers head coach -- a coach with countless brutal AFC North battles under his belt -- was moved.
"We were watching 9-on-7 one day," Nagy told The Next Pats Podcast. "(Mapu) blows up a fullback... Marte met him in the hole, knocked him back, made the tackle. Mike Tomlin looked over at me kind of wide-eyed like, 'Wow.' "
There was another play, a zone run, where Mapu tore into a climbing offensive lineman and found the ball-carrier to ruin the rep. The offensive lineman -- Old Dominion's Nick Saldiveri, who was taken at the top of the fourth round by the Saints -- was jarred to the point that he was briefly taken off his feet.
Marte Mapu is flying around - he comes downhill with bad intentions pic.twitter.com/s9AnDjvV0l
— Connor Rogers (@ConnorJRogers) February 1, 2023
Mapu made plays in coverage during the week of practice, too, showing enough speed and reaction ability to prove he's more than a downhill thumper.
Who will be highest drafted snub from this weekâ€™s #NFLCombine?
Polled NFL scouts and most common reply was Sacramento State SS/WLB Marte Mapu.
Majority of 30-35 Combine omits each year are late-rounders but thereâ€™s buzz Mapu could be rare Day 2 riser.#TheDraftStartsInMOBILEâ„¢ï¸ pic.twitter.com/eHQE0iibat
— Jim Nagy (@JimNagy_SB) February 26, 2023
But, clearly, physicality is a significant part of his identity.
Soon after the Patriots selected him, an NFC linebackers coach texted, "New England took my guy."
A late-in-the-process riser, Mapu had fans on coaching staffs and in scouting departments across the NFL. He had a strong week at the NFLPA Bowl, landed on Nagy's radar, and earned an invite to the Senior Bowl where he had an opportunity to raise his level against stiffer competition.
He passed with flying colors.
"I give credit to Dane Vandernat, who’s the director of the NFLPA game," Nagy said. "Dave gave me access to their practice tape, I watched that. [Mapu] immediately jumped out. The straight-line closing speed, the physicality, the explosiveness on contact. Then we jumped to the Sac State tape, which we had here at the office. Watched some of that. It was easy. The next morning I texted his agent. I said, 'Let’s go. Let’s get him on the first flight out after that NFLPA game.'
"He showed up here and had two really good days of practice before getting injured. He made a huge impact, man. He’s a really unique player."
2023 NFL Draft Highlights: Marte Mapu - LB, Sacramento State
Patriots fans may be inclined to compare Mapu -- a Day 2 big-hitter from a lower level of competition at the strong safety position -- to Kyle Dugger. Both are versatile hybrid-types. Both are violent strikers. But Dugger, who more than held his own when making the leap from Division 2 Lenoir-Rhyne to the Senior Bowl in 2020, is a different type of mover.
"Dugg is a better change of direction athlete," Nagy said. "He’s a little more fluid of an athlete. To me... You can play him in some sub-down linebacker stuff because of the size. But, to me, he’s really a versatile safety piece.
"Whereas Mapu is more like a strong safety-to-Will linebacker (hybrid). I really think you’re going to want this guy playing in the box because he plays bigger than his size (at) 220, 219. He hits like a ton of bricks. This guy’s snap on contact is just, like, different...
"I mean, this guy plays downhill and just buckles people. It’s hard to find. He’s a really unique player. I comped him a little bit to Telvin Smith who I did coming out of Florida State. He was only 217, 218 (pounds) at Florida State and ended up being a really good player for a handful of years for the Jacksonville Jaguars.
"To me, he’s got some Telvin Smith to him. To me, he’s a really unique kind of undersized, in-the-box linebacker but he’s got length. He’s 220, but he’s got 33.5-inch arms. Really long. Just a really cool piece. A really unique player. It doesn’t surprise me that Coach Belichick would take an interest in him."
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Belichick has long preferred big-bodied linebackers to man the second level of his defense, but in recent years he's invested in lighter players who can cover ground and still -- and this is key -- blow up would-be blockers with physicality. Elandon Roberts (235 pounds) played almost 700 snaps for Belichick back in 2017. Mack Wilson (230) was brought aboard last offseason to provide some front-seven athleticism, though he never became a regular defensively.
Mapu is smaller than both of those players. But perhaps with some shakeup personnel-wise on Belichick's defense, he can slide into a regular role. With Devin McCourty retired, perhaps that opens up more opportunity for Dugger to play in the deep part of the field, thereby opening up some of Dugger's linebacker-level snaps for Mapu.
"Big upside," the NFC linebackers coach said of Mapu. "Played nickel and safety (at Sac State). Really smart. Has a lot of positon flex. Big hitter. Really tough."
Would Mapu fill in for McCourty in any way? He'd seem like more of a fit as a box safety -- of which there are several in New England if you include Dugger, Adrian Phillips and Jabrill Peppers in that category -- or a "spy on athletic QBs on third down," the NFC assistant said before adding, "I don't think he has the range to be a deep safety in the NFL."
A linebacker-quality hitter in a strong safety's body? A quick-enough athlete to hang with backs and tight ends in coverage? A spy for speedy quarterbacks when Josh Allen, Patrick Mahomes, Anthony Richardson, Justin Herbert, Dak Prescott, Russell Wilson and Daniel Jones are all on the schedule?
There could end up being big-time value there from Belichick's latest small-school draft choice.