Phil Perry

Patriots pre-camp 53-man roster projection: Where will Marte Mapu fit?

The versatile rookie's role is one of several important storylines to monitor in training camp.

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Just a few days away from the start of training camp, it's a good time to peer into our crystal ball and attempt to answer some Patriots roster-building questions that linger.

How many receivers will end up with the club after it missed out on DeAndre Hopkins? What will happen with Lawrence Guy, who's reportedly unhappy with his contract and skipped mandatory minicamp? Who's backing up Rhamondre Stevenson? What happens if Jack Jones misses time? 

Plenty to gnaw on. Let's get out the hand wipes and get to work.

Quarterback (2): Mac Jones, Bailey Zappe

It's Mac Jones' job to lose. And it should be. Period. Engaging in an all-out camp competition with Bailey Zappe -- when reps are limited and there's a new coordinator in the mix -- would be a poor use of everyone's time.

If Jones' rough 2022 came with a competent operation around him, then have at it. Of course. Battle. But working without a plan in Year 2 means the Patriots have to give Jones the latitude to prove what he can be with some real coaching in Year 3.

This is the same guy who impressed offensive coaches across the league by running a complex scheme as a rookie two seasons ago. It wasn't everything Tom Brady ran. But even a pared-down version of that offense placed a lot on the quarterback, bright football minds will tell you.

Jones will have plenty on his plate again this year. He should get all the snaps he can handle in July and August to ensure he's as comfortable as can be by September.

Running back (4): Rhamondre Stevenson, Ty Montgomery, Pierre Strong, Kevin Harris

Is Kevin Harris ready to roll? He looked a little trimmed down during the spring. Unless the Patriots bring in a veteran -- Dalvin Cook? Leonard Fournette? -- Harris should be the one giving Rhamondre Stevenson a breather on early downs.

How quickly he can get to openings at the line, how well he can protect the football, and how durable he can be are all worth watching this summer. He's in line for a critical role.

Wide receiver (5): DeVante Parker, Tyquan Thornton, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Kendrick Bourne, Demario Douglas

This looks like the group now that DeAndre Hopkins has headed to Tennessee. The pairings here will be fascinating to track in camp. This should be an offense that leans heavily on 12 personnel (more on that later), but there will be plenty of work for whichever trio lands atop the depth chart.

DeVante Parker is the true "X" of the group. JuJu Smith-Schuster (if healthy) is the true slot. Tyquan Thornton and Kendrick Bourne might have to slug it out for regular reps at the "Z" spot. Injuries could simplify the playing-time equation here, but if the team is dealing with injuries at this point in the season, that's a bad sign for what's to come.

Tight end (2): Hunter Henry, Mike Gesicki

We know Mike Gesicki is more "big slot" than true do-it-all tight end. But he does have the ability to seal off a defensive back on the back sides of runs. His value will be in providing a vertical presence in the middle of the field.

Keeping Henry and Gesicki healthy will be critical during training camp. Load management might be in order for both just to ensure they can run what they're planning on running come Week 1. The lack of depth here -- combined with the injury risks at receiver -- could make this a fairly dicey pass-catcher picture if the Patriots aren't careful. 

Offensive line (9): Trent Brown, Cole Strange, David Andrews, Mike Onwenu, Riley Reiff, Calvin Anderson, Jake Andrews, Sidy Sow, Atonio Mafi

With no Hopkins addition, that could open up an extra spot along the offensive line. The Patriots drafted three rookie linemen who have the potential to stand out in preseason action because of their power -- and all three make the roster here.

While someone like Atonio Mafi might not have much utility in a West Coast zone-rushing attack because of his size (6-foot-3, 330 pounds), he has the kind of power that could entice gap-heavy teams to take a flier on him if he lands on waivers.

The Patriots also may want to keep an extra guard around in case Mike Onwenu (currently on the physically unable to perform list) has to move to tackle to buttress that spot.

Specialists (8): Chad Ryland, Bryce Baringer, Joe Cardona, Matthew Slater, Brendan Schooler, Chris Board, Ameer Speed, Jourdan Heilig

There wasn't much made of Cody Davis' season-ending injury last year, but some of the struggles this team went through in the kicking game can be traced back to that unit being without one of the best all-around special-teamers in football. He's beginning the week on PUP (players there can be removed at any time) so his availability bears watching.

If he's unavailable to start the year, would the Patriots go ahead and keep two kickers, giving Nick Folk his job back as place-kicker for another year? When I asked Bill Belichick about it earlier this offseason, he didn't rule it out. We have undrafted rookie Jourdan Heilig -- who has a remarkable story and didn't even think he had much of a chance to play in the league out of Appalachian State -- taking that Davis spot instead of Folk here.

Defensive line (6): Davon Godchaux, Deatrich Wise, Christian Barmore, Carl Davis, Lawrence Guy, Daniel Ekuale

The Patriots are going to need Lawrence Guy. Here's the logic: Without Devin McCourty, they may have to play more two-safety structures in the secondary, which would mean one fewer body at the linebacker level, which would mean Belichick will need all the two-gapping power at the line he can get in order to make up for that lighter second level. That's where Guy (and Carl Davis, Davon Godchaux and Christian Barmore) come in.

Outside linebacker (4): Matthew Judon, Anfernee Jennings, Josh Uche, Keion White

How the Patriots deploy Keion White will be one of the under-the-radar storylines of camp. The team viewed him as a first-round talent. He's massive (listed at 290 pounds), yet Belichick had him dropping into coverage at times this spring. If he does enough this summer to out-perform Anfernee Jennings and take that early-down edge role opposite Matthew Judon, that could open a spot elsewhere.

Players like Jahlani Tavai and Ja'Whaun Bentley have shown an ability to play on the edge in a pinch when needed if the team feels it needs more depth there. Deatrich Wise -- not a true outside 'backer but certainly an edge player -- fits into the math here as well. For now, Jennings -- who was solid as an edge-setter on the outside last season -- sticks around.

Inside linebacker (4): Ja'Whaun Bentley, Jahlani Tavai, Mack Wilson, Marte Mapu

Where does Marte Mapu play? The Mapu hype train picked up so much momentum that it just about ran off the tracks it before the spring was over. This would qualify as a good time to pump the brakes.

He has plenty of questions to answer. Is he a linebacker? His size (230 pounds) would indicate he can hang there in most defenses. But can he in New England, where linebackers are asked to violently take on blockers and physically eliminate threats in the running game?

He showed real pop at the Senior Bowl, but this is a different level. Is he fast enough to play free safety and range sideline to sideline? If it's determined his best role is really as a depth piece behind the cast of hybrid defenders at safety currently on the roster, it could be a while before he's on the field with any regularity. 

Safety (4): Kyle Dugger, Adrian Phillips, Jalen Mills, Jabrill Peppers

Where Jalen Mills aligns has suddenly become an interesting conversation. Jack Jones remains with the team, though his availability for the regular season is in question following a weapons-related arrest at Logan Airport this offseason.

Will Mills play safety, where he's been working out prior to the start of camp? Or will he be back at corner in order to get the reps there that he needs if he needs to help fill in for Jones? 

Cornerback (5): Christian Gonzalez, Jack Jones, Jonathan Jones, Marcus Jones, Myles Bryant

If Mills isn't going to be bumped back out to corner, then there could be a lot of pressure on this group to be able to rise to the occasion physically.

Christian Gonzalez will have to be ready to physically handle opposing big-bodied wideouts. Jonathan Jones may have to be prepared to play on the outside again, as he did for much of last season. Marcus Jones may have to be ready to live in the slot, where he'd be forced to help plug gaps as a run defender.

One player's potential absence should have the ability to disrupt an entire group, but Jack Jones has already become an important piece to the overall operation at corner for the Patriots. He's the lone true outside corner on the roster with any experience. Unless Mills moves again.

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