FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — With great versatility comes great responsibility.
Fortunately, Patriots rookie — linebacker? safety? rover? let’s go with defender — Marte Mapu is built for the task. The 6-foot-3, 230-pound hybrid played everywhere from linebacker to strong safety to free safety and on kick and punt return units in his NFL debut Sunday against the Eagles. He was on the field for 21 official snaps and made an impact with three tackles.
Patriots Pro Bowl pass rusher Matthew Judon has seen Mapu play on all three levels of the defense.
“I don’t really know Marte’s background too much,” Judon said Sunday. “I watched highlights and stuff, things like that. But, for him to be able to play linebacker, safety and outside linebacker, that’s kind of unbelievable.”
Patriots safety Adrian Phillips said earlier this summer that he couldn’t think of a player comp for Mapu.
Mapu is officially listed as a linebacker on the Patriots’ roster. But he warms up with defensive backs, and it’s, quite frankly, easier for him to list positions he knows he’s not going to play.
“I know that I’m not going to be a three-tech (defensive tackle). I’m not gonna be no corner. But besides that…,” Mapu told the Boston Herald at his locker last week as he prepared for the Patriots’ season opener.
So, the 2023 third-round pick learned the whole defense out of anxiety that he would be caught off guard. He knows that he could be thrust into any role at any moment.
And that’s the Patriots’ plan so far.
“We’ll use him as we see fit based on where we need him,” linebackers coach Jerod Mayo said Tuesday on a video conference call with reporters.
The extra study came naturally to Mapu. He did the same thing in college at Sacramento State even when he had a much better sense of how he would be used.
Mapu is humble and unpretentious. He’d be the last person to tell you he’s got it all figured out, but between his intelligence and preparedness, it feels like he does.
“I just felt like that was gonna give me the best foundation in terms of, ‘OK, if they do want to use me here’ — like, I don’t want to be surprised by anything,” Mapu said. “Because then I’m studying one thing all week and if somebody gets hurt or maybe if a vet is a little bit tight that day or something like that, and I gotta go in there and I’m like, ‘Well, this ain’t the position I’ve been studying.’ … And then also, if I know that 10 people are doing 10 different things and there’s only one job left. That helps with my process of elimination.”
“Instincts” is a term that gets thrown around in describing a defender’s unquantifiable skills. If a player is in the right place at the right time or appears like he knows the play better than the offense, then it’s usually chalked up to “instincts.”
But for Mapu, that process of learning the entire defense — even if it’s a position he knows he’s not going to play — helps to diagnose a play before it’s even happening.
“If I know how our ends are gonna play, I can play a little bit faster because I can anticipate, ‘OK, if they go inside, that means the ball’s gonna go outside. That means I can take my track early and try to beat him to the spot or just adjust my track.’ So then we’re not both going inside and now they’re beating us around the edge. Or maybe he’s gonna stay outside. I can trust my eyes and just shoot it, knowing that he’s not going to bounce,” he said.
“In terms of studying and when I’m trying to prioritize, that doesn’t really change but in terms of what I’m gonna be doing on the field, that’s completely up to the coaches.”
It will be fascinating to see how Mapu’s role grows in the defense as the season goes along. In college, Mapu primarily played in the slot as a senior, also rotating into the box, at free safety and along the defensive line. He has a lot of competition for snaps at safety. Kyle Dugger, Jabrill Peppers and Phillips all received more playing time Sunday. He has a clearer path at linebacker.
Mapu believes his role could be situational or change week to week but only because that’s par for the course in the Patriots’ defense.
“I don’t think that’s really unique to me,” he said. “That’s kind of the trademark of the Patriots defense. I didn’t really know it as much until I started getting closer to the league and how versatile a lot of defenses are. But this defense is pretty unique, or at least from what I know. From my perspective.
“We have D-linemen that can play inside and outside, and we have corners that have played a little bit of safety, that have played inside and outside, and we have safeties — not only me — that have rotated down into the box and played linebacker. I’m gonna study everything until they tell me ‘only study this.’ … If I stopped studying the other positions and then an emergency happens during the game, that’s probably going to be the worst time to be surprised by stuff.”
Patriots coaches know they’re putting a lot on Mapu’s plate, but his role Sunday suggested that they know he can handle it.
A person close to Mapu said last week, this is “all he does.”
“He’s challenged with a difficult task to learn multiple spots,” cornerbacks coach Mike Pellegrino said. “But that’s the value of our defense. Versatilty is value. That’s what he’s trying to create, and he’s doing the best he can with learning both positions, learning the whole scheme, what everybody does. The big picture is what we talk about a lot in the defensive side of the room is what is the big picture, what are we trying to accomplish? I think he’s doing a good job trying to do that.”