The Patriots pulled off a magical 26-23 Christmas Eve win in Denver with a last-second 56-yard field goal. The win puts New England’s record at 4-11 on the season. One of the contributors to the Patriots’ festive win was rookie linebacker/special teamer Marte Mapu. With a minute and change left in the third quarter, and the Patriots already up 16-7, Mapu punched the ball out of Marvin Mims’ hands on a routine kickoff return, which was then recovered in the endzone by Cody Davis for a touchdown. Mapu’s forced fumble put the Patriots up 23-7, aiding them to the victory.
The forced fumble on Mims is Mapu’s second turnover of the season, with his first being last week against the Kansas City Chiefs. Midway through the second quarter of a 7-7 game against the Chiefs, Mapu wrestled a ball away from tight end Blake Bell on a pass from Patrick Mahomes, Mapu then returned it inside the ten, which led to a Patriots field goal, putting them in front 10-7. In the past two weeks, Mapu has shown physicality and a nose for the football, much like what he showed in college.
Before being drafted by the Patriots with the 13th pick of the third round, Mapu was a standout linebacker at Sacramento State. Mapu had an evolutionary college career, where he redshirted his 2017 freshman year, then played in five games the following season, putting up six tackles. Mapu played in six more games in his 2019 season, and started in two, posting 18 tackles and an interception. Sacramento State did not have a 2020 football season due to Covid.
Mapu emerged as a reliable and productive starter in his junior year with the Hornets, starting in 12 games and recording four interceptions, 10 pass breakups, and 65 tackles, 5.5 of which for loss. Mapu’s performance in his 2021 season earned him the honor of Second Team All-Big Sky Conference.
The linebacker’s best season was in his senior year, where he started 13 games and put up 76 tackles, 6.5 of which for loss, two interceptions, four pass breakups, and a blocked kick. Mapu earned First Team A.P. All-American Honors as well as Big Sky Conference Defensive Player of the Year. Throughout Mapu’s collegiate career, he showed great tackling technique, the ability to hit hard, and ball hawking qualities, paired with a refusal to give up on a play. Mapu showed versatility in being able to play both the linebacker and safety spot with ease and could come after the quarterback on a blitz. Mapu could do it all.
Sacramento State seemed to be a great fit for Mapu, who is a California native, hailing from Hawthorne, C.A. At Hawthrone High School, Mapu showed his true athleticism and versatility, playing linebacker, safety, quarterback, and wide receiver… he excelled at each position. On defense, Mapu showed the precursor to his college career with an instinctive style of play along with great play recognition and tackling. On offense, Mapu was an impressive passer and a powerful runner. If there’s one thing Bill Belichick and the Patriots appreciate, it is versatility.
Standing at 6’3’’ and weighing 217 pounds, Mapu has the ideal size for a linebacker/safety hybrid, which he has shown flashes of at the NFL level so far. The Patriots have seemed to realize that they can no longer have just big-bruiser style linebackers like Ja’Whaun Bentley, they need to have lighter and faster sideline to sideline linebackers as well.
Faster, lateral-moving linebackers can aid in stopping the mobile quarterbacks that are becoming more and more common in today’s league, as well as fast, jitterbug running backs, both of which the Patriots have struggled with in the past. In college, it was apparent that Mapu was versatile, receiving high praise for such qualities from his former defensive coordinator, Andy Thompson.
“Our last three (Big Sky) championship runs, he (Mapu) did whatever it took, whether it was special teams, high safety, nickel, linebacker. He just wants to win and contribute.” Said Thompson.
Mapu's former D.C. went on to comment on his speed and coverage skills.
"I just know that he can run with slot receivers that are pretty fast," Thompson boasted.
The Sacramento State product was also known in college to be somewhat of a tight end stopper, an intriguing talent, if it can be unlocked at the NFL level.
Mapu earned praise quickly in New England during training camp, where he was on the field constantly, making plays at linebacker, safety, and on special teams. The rookie had glowing remarks from teammates as well. As most know, good special teams play can earn you a stable spot in New England. The Denver game showed that the rookie is capable of making plays on special teams.
It still seems to be unclear whether Mapu will be playing at linebacker or safety in the future. With Kyle Dugger in a contract year, some speculate that Mapu may be the heir to Dugger’s spot if the two sides cannot come to a deal. There is a possibility that Mapu could rotate in at both linebacker and safety depending on certain packages.
The hybrid rookie and the Patriots will have their hands full in an upcoming away matchup against the Buffalo Bills, a team that needs all the wins they can get to position themselves for the playoffs. Although some fans may be worried about draft positioning, it is unrealistic to think that this team is going to give up, for guys like Mapu, every game is an opportunity to fight for a job and show that they deserve to have a starting spot on the team (or another team) going forward. The players are still playing hard on the Patriots, and Mapu is certainly one to keep an eye on.
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