The 2023 Patriots draft class looks so good, it could go down in history. The picks they made to strengthen the defense in particular are all set for big rookie seasons. You might think drafting Keion White adds more pass rush, but he’s only the first part. The talented defensive front finished third in the league when it came to sacks last time out. But there’s more to it than just defensive linemen.
The addition of Marte Mapu, who could line up as a linebacker or a defensive back is fascinating. It’s almost like having 12 defenders on the field at once. Mapu could even lineup at linebacker pre-snap and then drop back into the backfield or come out of the backfield on a delayed blitz. That will make it impossible for quarterbacks to recognize what formation the defense is lining up in. In turn that will confuse what play they decide to run at the line of scrimmage and that lack of clarity will lead them to hesitate when it comes to pulling the trigger.
But the most important addition when it comes to improving the Patriots pass rush is not actually going to be rushing the passer, it’s first round selection Christian Gonzalez.
Defensive end White, who is noted for never smiling, is 290 lbs. but has the footwork and burst of a much smaller man. In the first preseason game against the Texans, he ran past blockers before they could lay a hand on him. His immediate appearance in the backfield ahead of Dare Ogunbawale resulted in a fumble and Ogunbawale finding out firsthand how well White can tackle while he dropped the ball. White will add some depth at defensive end behind Deatrich Wise Jr. and his power and burst will occupy blockers. That’s going to make Matt Judon’s path to the quarterback a lot clearer in 2023.
Marte Mapu is the most intriguing of all the Patriots' 2023 picks. Even at Sacramento State Mapu was incredibly versatile. He was named to the second-team all-Big Sky roster as an outside linebacker in 2022 but the Hornets website says he started all 12 of their games as nickelback. That versatility would make it near impossible for opponents to know if they were lined up against a pass defense or a run defense.
The key to delaying the ball leaving the quarterback’s hands is the defensive backfield though. Just like when Belichick signed Stephon Gilmore to play opposite Malcom Butler the Patriots have paired Christian Gonzalez with Jonathan Jones. Jones had a career season in 2022 allowing a passer rating of just 73.0! In 2017 the Patriots ended the season with 42 sacks, only sixth best in the league. But they did end that season in the Super Bowl.
Gonzalez is the rarest of rookie defenders, he’s got the physical attributes of a young defensive back with the awareness and understanding of a veteran. His ability to read a quarterback before the pass allied with his closing speed allows him to quickly shut down receivers whilst playing in zone coverage. And even more impressively how he reads a receiver’s eyes combined with his reach allows him to break up passes or take interceptions in man coverage. Gonzalez figures to be this season’s Sauce Gardner, quarterbacks won’t want to test him if they don't have to. There will be more than a few coverage sacks in Foxborough this season.
It’s not just the rookies who will play an important role in assisting the pass rush in Foxboro this year though. Free agent signing Chris Board brings experience to the special teams' unit, but he was also used as a situational pass rusher in Detroit. He only played 14% of the Lions defensive snaps but he was sent on a blitz 10 times and hurried the passer three times.
In 2022 the Eagles recorded more sacks than anyone other team in the league and made the third-highest number of turnovers too. There might be question marks around the offense in 2023, but the defense will provide them with plenty of chances to get it right. See, I told you Sun Tzu was wrong. Defense is actually the key to a good offense.