New England Patriots

L-R: Maryland K Chad Ryland, Sacramento State LB/S Marte Mapu, Eastern Michigan G Sidy Sow (Credit Maryland, Sacramento State, and Eastern Michigan Athletics)

There’s a draft philosophy that says teams should make their picks based on projected needs a year ahead, rather than their immediate roster. The idea is by doing so, the roster regularly stays stocked with young talent, and allows teams to be less reactionary with their picks.

In theory, it’s a great idea. However, teams have to consistently hit on their picks in order to make it work.

  • It’s also a philosophy the Patriots used to go to quite a bit under Bill Belichick. In recent years, after a string of bad drafts from 2017-2019, they’ve made more immediate picks, In 2023 though, a handful of their 12 selections certainly seemed aimed at a year out, rather than the immediate future.

    The first such pick came in the third round, when the team took hybrid linebacker/safety Marte Mapu out of Sacramento State. While Mapu played linebacker in college, his role will likely change once he gets to the NFL. At 6-foot-3, 217 pounds, it would be a massive departure from the norm for a Patriots team that has traditionally prioritized size above all else at the linebacker position to play him there regularly.

    Instead of playing him as a true linebacker, the Patriots could maximize his size, physicality, football IQ and instincts by putting him at box safety. The thing is, they already have a player fitting that description in Kyle Dugger.

  • In fact, Mapu and Dugger have a lot in common. Both are small-school prospects (Dugger is out of Division-II Lenoir-Rhyne) who really burst onto the NFL Draft scene at the Senior Bowl, where Mapu was a standout this year. Both are quick-twitch, elite athletes who are capable of delivering punishing hits.

    Even if Mapu does play linebacker, he’s going to be a passing down specialist. The Patriots just brought a couple of players projected to play in that role, namely Mack Wilson and Raekwon McMillan.

    Belichick even noted in his post-draft press conference the team doesn’t entirely know how they’re going to use Mapu yet. “Hard to say. We’ll have to see how it goes,” Belichick replied when asked to project what role he sees Mapu playing in the Patriots’ defense. “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 him, we’ll start to figure that out.”

    When seeing the similarities between the players, it’s hard not to bring their contract situations into the equation. All three veterans mentioned above are only signed for the 2023 season. Most notably, Dugger is in the final year of his rookie contract and is currently set to enter unrestricted free agency for the first time as a surging player at 27 years old. He figures to be due for a solid payday.

    If the Patriots are worried about being able to re-sign him – or have already decided they wont – they now have a potential replacement already in place in Mapu. They also have a potential replacement for Wilson and McMillan. Expect this line of thinking to come up plenty when the next offseason begins.

  • This line of thinking can also help better explain the run on guards early on Day 3 – which was the most head-scratching part of the Patriots’ draft. After using all three picks on defensive players through the first two days, the Patriots took Troy center Jake Andrews, Eastern Michigan guard Sidy Sow, and then after training back from late in the fourth to early in the fifth round, added UCLA guard Atonio Mafi.

    Initially, it’s hard to see how the picks fit into the 2023 plan. The team returns 2022 first-round pick Cole Strange at left guard, Michael Onwenu at right guard, and David Andrews at center.

    However that alignment, as strong as it is, may not be together for long. Onwenu is entering a contract year, and should be one of if not the top guard available in free agency next spring. Andrews is signed through 2024, but is entering his age-31 season after dealing with multiple injuries last year.

    Plus, the Patriots will likely be in the need for a tackle again next year. Their projected starters for 2023 – Trent Brown and Conor Riley Reiff – are both in contract years.

  • While the path to playing time may not be there in 2023 for this trio of rookie linemen, it’s much more clear for 2024 and beyond. Sow and Mafi both project as right guards in the Patriots’ system, but it sounds like they could have shots elsewhere as well. In particular, director of player personnel Matt Groh highlighted Sow’s previous experience at tackle when asked about him after the draft.

    “Coach [Adrian] Klemm [offensive line coach] will give him opportunities. We’ll try and fit him in the best spot possible,” Groh explained. “Sidy does have some background at left tackle. He’s been a guard here the last couple years. He’s not a little guy. He’s got plenty of athleticism. He’s got plenty of power. So we’ll see how it goes and try and find the best spot for him.”

    Groh did the same for Jake Andrews, adding, “the same thing with Jake who has got some versatility playing center and guard, and as another saying goes around here, the more you can do. So looking forward to having those guys and seeing what they can do at multiple spots.”

  • There are some hints of this strategy at other positions, although to a lesser extent. Defensive end Keion White, the team’s second-round pick from Georgia Tech, should factor in immediately in the edge rotation. At the same time, he projects to grow into a much bigger role in 2024 with a number of edge players, such as Josh Uche and Anfernee Jennings, currently in contract years.

    At receiver, the team took Kayshon Boutte out of LSU in the sixth round. Boutte comes in a true boom-or-bust prospect, having shown flashes of elite talent at LSU to the point where he was considered the top receiver in this draft at one point this fall, but also going through waves of unproductive games while struggling to stay healthy and dealing with off-field issues as well.

    That’s all to say Boutte is hardly a sure thing as a contributor. But if he does pan out, his skillset is similar to that of Kendrick Bourne (but with more upside). With Bourne being in a contract year as well, the Patriots have time to figure out if Boutte can take over that role in 2024 (or sooner), or if they’ll need to place a bigger investment at the position.

    Even at the kicker spot, we see this in play. As a fourth round pick, Maryland’s Chad Ryland figures to be a lock to make the team, bringing the Nick Folk era to an end in New England. Folk was under contract for one more year, so the Patriots didn’t need to add a kicker. By doing so, they took a potential need off the 2024 to-do list by addressing it a year early. With Folk struggling down the stretch last year, it wasn’t a total surprise to see the Patriots invest in a kicker, but it certainly wasn’t something they had to do.

    When looking at the Patriots’ 2023 draft through this lens, it may help explain and make sense of some of their more puzzling picks. Does it justify them? Time will tell, but the run on interior offensive linemen is certainly something that will get a lot of attention. Overall though, it felt like the Patriots played the long game with this class as they try to get back to the playoffs after missing last year, and win their first playoff game since Super Bowl LIII at the end of the 2018 season.

  • Alex Barth is a writer and digital producer for Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Thoughts? Comments? Questions? Looking for a podcast guest? Let him know on Twitter @RealAlexBarth or via email at

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