As per usual, the New England Patriots 2023 draft was taken to task in this space for both who they drafted, and, who they didn’t. That’s par for the course.
Upon further review, however, after every draft, it’s possible to alter that initial perception (and disappointment) with more balanced observations.
One area that was actually favored was the Patriots drafting two or maybe even three guard-type players. While one, fourth-rounder Jake Andrews was thought to have been drafted too high ( a reach), the other two, Sidy Sow and Atonio Mafi perhaps weren’t.
The Patriots have done well in drafting guards later on. The most recent and exemplary example was Mike Onwenu in the sixth round in 2020. Now, there may just be another.
New England Patriots may have hit paydirt in the fifth round
The New England Patriots selected UCLA guard, Atonio Mafi in the fifth round. So why the alteration of viewpoint and why the sudden optimism?
Initially, the pick wasn’t really panned. The fifth round is one where a team can roll the dice somewhat and not have to pay the piper, at least perceptually, if they miss. It happens.
Drafting huge guards of itself is not a bad idea at all. Drafting them later on makes great sense. Earlier, a la Cole Strange in the first round, not so much.
Onwenu is the perfect example of a sixth-rounder who has excelled. (His not being re-signed yet to an extension is another issue for another time.).
Atonio Mafi has the potential to be another Onwenu. Out-on-a-limb on this on? Perhaps. But here’s why maybe not. Mafi has star potential written all over his game. Let’s explore this a bit.
Patriots rookie Antonio Mafi is a mauler
Mafi, as Onwenu, is no small addition. He’s listed as 6’3″ tall and 338 pounds (probably before dinner). This is one big dude. At guard, that’s a fabulous asset.
Mafi has huge legs to anchor, and will be, as the late great Joel Buchsbaum of Pro Football Weekly used to say, “a $20 cab ride (now probably $75) to get around”. In girth, there is strength.
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Mafi’s pass blocking is likely a work in progress. His quarterback at UCLA, Dorian Thompson-Robinson (a pre-draft favorite here) is a dual-threat type who could improvise. (Ironically, Patriots UDFA signing, quarterback Malik Cunningham [a favorite here now] is also a dual-threat type.)
But it’s in the running game that Mafi dominates. Additionally, in Mafi there is more strength than just girth. Watch his tapes and you’ll see. He’s a road grading mauler. Think Shaq Mason but bigger, stronger, and … nastier!
The young steamroller not only crushes opposing defensive linemen but if you are unfortunate enough as a defensive back or linebacker to be in his line of sight, it’s lights out.
Mafi will not only block you, but he’ll plant you like a spring geranium in the garden, and he’s nasty enough that you ain’t goin’ nowhere after. Man, don’t you love big, nasty, talented guards!
That’s the story. It’s an, “Upon further review” episode and it’s terrific. Can’t wait to see Atonio Mafi planting Dolphins, Jets, and yes, Buffalo Bills into the turf.
After all, it’s environmentally friendly, is it not? For the New England Patriots, it will be, indeed. It’s planting season!