GREEN BAY, Wisc. — Mark Thompson and Mac Bledsoe still get breakfast together every week. They’re regulars at Blue Mountain Tavern, a hole-in-the-wall diner in Walla Walla, Wash., that boasts a hot steamed sandwich they claim is famous. A cup of coffee costs $2.75 and comes with free refills.
They talk about the news of the week and reminisce about their time as co-head coaches of the local high school football team. They’ll occasionally chat about their children, too.
Mac’s son Drew is busy with the family winery up the road. Mark’s son Andy is embarking on his first season as head football coach at Sacramento State after four years as the school’s defensive coordinator.
The two families have been close since the Bledsoes moved to the area when Drew was in grade school. That’s why Andy Thompson was so excited when the Patriots made one of the biggest surprise picks in this spring’s NFL Draft, selecting a little-known linebacker from Sac State in the third round by the name of Marte Mapu. Other teams thought he was a position-less tweener — a skilled player to be sure, but one they might struggle to assign a permanent spot.
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But Thompson’s connection to the Bledsoes meant Andy spent a lot of time following the Patriots and hearing stories of Bill Belichick, even if he was initially soured on the team when it chose to start Tom Brady over his buddy, Drew Bledsoe. He has met Belichick. He knows how much the Patriots coach values versatility and work ethic. And that’s why Thompson wasn’t surprised to hear that Mapu has been one of the Patriots’ best players in training camp, a rookie who has already drawn praise from veterans as he embarks on the difficult task of learning multiple positions in Belichick’s complicated defense.
“If you play for the Patriots, you’ve got to love football and be a team-first guy and not care necessarily about what your personal accolades are,” Thompson said. “You’re going to do it to help them win championships. And Marte was definitely that way for us. Our last three (Big Sky) championship runs, he did whatever it took, whether it was special teams, high safety, nickel, linebacker. He just wants to win and contribute.”
Mapu’s path to the Patriots was a winding one. He wasn’t a big-name recruit destined for Alabama like so many others on this roster. He played quarterback and linebacker for a high school team that didn’t have a lot of success — or Division I prospects.
Mapu put together his own highlight reel to try to drum up college interest. But he didn’t really want schools to offer him a scholarship as a quarterback, so he put those clips at the end of the video. He wanted coaches to see him as a football player first. Worry about finding a position after that.
That led to a spot at Sacramento State where coaches initially weren’t sure where to use him. He played as a nickel cornerback, but the team had plenty of depth there, so he studied other positions, too. He moved to safety as a sophomore after an injury there, then played some linebacker.
“He just wanted to get on the field and leave a mark,” Thompson said. “He loves football.”
Mapu stayed at Sacramento State for six years, redshirting once and because his 2020 season was canceled due to the pandemic. Over that time, he put on 20 pounds and got faster. After a great 2022 season, he was excited to show scouts what he could do at the NFL combine. But he suffered a torn pectoral muscle in February and wasn’t able to work out for teams, leaving many of them unsure how to properly grade Mapu.
They asked Thompson for Mapu’s 40-yard dash time, but the school didn’t test players in that sprint.
“I just know that he can run with slot receivers that are pretty fast,” Thompson told them.
At one point, Thompson thought Mapu was going to land with the San Francisco 49ers. They called the most of any team seeking information on Mapu and compared him to Fred Warner, their star linebacker. But with the 76th pick, the Patriots chose Mapu. Eleven spots later, the 49ers settled for a different versatile safety in Ji’Ayir Brown.
It didn’t take long for Mapu to make an impression on the Patriots. He rarely comes off the field at practices. He plays linebacker, safety and nickel corner, often staying on the field with the first-, second- and third-team defenses. Coaches and teammates have raved about how hard he’s worked to learn so many different positions.
“He has a million questions — and he’s not leaving until he gets every one of them answered,” veteran safety Adrian Philips said with a laugh. “I love that about him.”
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Mapu was still recovering from the pectoral injury when the Patriots drafted him. But for the first time this week, he shed the red non-contact jersey during joint practices in Green Bay that he’d been wearing, a sign he’s fully cleared to play.
That means Mapu could be ready to take the field Saturday for his first preseason game. He didn’t play in the first exhibition contest due to the injury, but during the game, he was given a daunting task for a rookie, one that speaks to how highly the Patriots think of him. On the sideline, Mapu stood next to defensive play caller Steve Belichick and charted the scheme they ran each time. It’s a task that’s tougher and more important than it sounds, Philips said. He should know; he used to do it.
“It’s tough, because if you get it wrong, then they’re on you,” Phillips said. “You’ve got to make sure you get everything right and you make sure that you’re by the (defensive coordinator) the whole time. Because if you mess it up, you pretty much mess up the whole play. A lot of stuff is riding on you, and if you get it wrong, then it’s going to be a long day the next day.”
The Patriots are still three weeks from their season opener against the Eagles and a first real glimpse at the role Mapu will play. After a standout training camp, it seems he’s forcing his way into the lineup and could be a big part of the team’s matchup-based defense. For now, Mapu is just trying to enjoy the ride.
“I don’t really know how the future pans out,” Mapu said, “but I feel like I’m in the right place right now.”
(Photo: Eric Canha / USA Today)
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