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NFL Draft

Is This Eli Apple’s Last Chance?

  • The Draft Network
  • August 18, 2020
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There are varying degrees of expectations for draft picks depending on where a player is selected.

Generally, you’re looking to get some year one contributions from your first-round picks. Sometimes that comes in a starting role, but not always due to the roster makeup of each team, so you don’t want to say they “have to” start. Your day two guys are your spot starters and rotational players early on, and hopefully full-time starters down the road. And as for the day three and undrafted free agents, you just hope you hit on some of them as guys you like enough to keep on the 53-man roster for the first few seasons while maybe getting a gem of a starter every now and then.

When cornerback Eli Apple was selected No. 10 overall in the 2016 NFL Draft by the New York Giants—the second cornerback taken in the draft after Jalen Ramsey—the expectation was that this guy was going to strengthen a group that already had Janoris Jenkins and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie in the two starting spots before becoming the team’s No. 1 corner in due time and for the years that would follow.

That didn’t happen. Well, to be fair, the first part of it did. The last part, not so much. 

Apple got the first start of his career in the opening month of the season and went on to start 11 games in his rookie campaign, including the final 10 games of the year. This was a great sign for the highly-drafted defensive back, and that kind of responsibility put him right in line with what you are looking for from your first-rounder.

To open the next season, Apple was named the starting outside cornerback with Jenkins over Rodgers-Cromartie during training camp, but that didn’t last long. Apple was benched during the team’s Week 5 matchup against the Los Angeles Chargers for disciplinary reasons. Later in the year, his actions were once again not up to par with the coaching staff’s expectations in Week 10, and Apple was not only benched but then was a healthy scratch from Weeks 11-14 for detrimental conduct. He returned as a backup in Week 15, but after continuing to butt heads with the coaching staff, Apple was eventually suspended by the Giants for the final game of the season.

It wasn’t just the coaching staff who had a problem with Apple, either. Apple’s teammate at the time, safety Landon Collins, reached a point with Apple where he could not bite his tongue anymore when speaking about his teammate.

"There is only one corner who needs to grow up and we all know who that is," Collins said. "That would be the only person I would change out of our secondary group. Besides, the other two guys, [Rodgers-Cromartie] and [Jenkins], I love those two guys. They play hard. They love what they do. That first pick...he's a cancer."

Oh, boy. Not liking your teammate is one thing. Hoping he’s not there next season is another. But calling a guy a “cancer” to a team? That’s about as strong of a statement as you can get in the realm of player-to-player relationships in sports.

Throughout the season, reports of immaturity, recklessness, and selfishness were constants when discussing Apple, and the sources for those thoughts on him were diverse (coaches, players, etc.) But when Pat Shurmur took over as head coach in 2018, he promised to give Apple a clean slate. Apple was once again named a starter to begin the season, but after playing in just five games, the Giants traded him to the New Orleans Saints for a fourth-round pick in 2019 and a seventh-round pick in 2020.

New Orleans was desperate for starting-caliber talent in their secondary after Patrick Robinson and Ken Crawley both went down with injuries. And on the bright side, this situation looked like an ideal one for Apple, as he was reunited with his former Ohio State teammates Marshon Lattimore and Von Bell.

After everything that went down in New York, this seemed like an “if Apple can make it work anywhere… it would be with the Saints” situation.

Apple started 10 games at cornerback for the New Orleans in 2018, but after the season the team declined the fifth-year option on his rookie deal. Apple went on to start 15 more games for the Saints in 2019, but was then a free agent after that.

During the 2020 free agency period, it was reported that Apple and the Las Vegas Raiders had agreed to a one-year, $6 million deal. But the deal never went through. The exact reasons for that are unknown, but Vic Tafur of The Athletic did say that he sensed some “cold feet” after the deal was announced.

Apple then agreed to a deal with the Carolina Panthers—an agreement that actually went through—for one-year, $3 million. With the departure of cornerback James Bradberry, the Panthers had a starting slot open opposite Donte Jackson. Apple now has the fast track to fill that.

This has the set up as a potential last chance for Apple, which is crazy since he was a 5-star recruit, the No. 11 player in the nation at one point, a top-10 pick, a guy with a great size and speed combo, has four years of experience, and is still just 25 years old. But the nature in which Apple has been moved from team to team and the inconsistent play he’s put on film combine to make this stop in Carolina a crucial one for Apple’s career.

The good news, as stated before, is that there really isn’t much on the depth chart that could take a starting spot away from him, even if he struggles early on acclimating to a new team with a new defensive coordinator during a pandemic. Corn Elder is on the team again after being cut last year and Luke Cole has been a practice squad guy for Carolina for the last few years. So unless rookie Troy Pride Jr. comes out guns blazing with his anticipation and speed, the way he did at the Senior Bowl this past January, for the entirety of training camp, there’s hardly any depth for the starting cornerback spots, let alone competition for Apple to fend off.

In theory, Apple should be a great fit for Carolina’s defensive coordinator Phil Snow. Snow, who has 37 years of coaching under his belt, has been with new Panthers head coach Matt Rhule at his last two stops prior to the Panthers, first at Temple, then at Baylor. As Rhule’s defensive coordinator in Waco, Snow’s defense finished fifth in the country in interceptions (17), fifth in fumbles recovered (13), ninth in fumbles forced (15), and ninth in sacks per game (3.29). This is a defensive that preaches turnovers with an aggressive style to how they counter the offense. This should lineup well with what Apple can do as an outside cornerback. His length and his speed make him an ideal man coverage kind of player, and aggressive defense will, at varying times, call for such coverage. 

But the talent factor is less in question than the potential character work that might need as much attention. Snow seems like a great defensive coordinator handling that area, and his collegiate background could be perfect for working with Apple. Snow spoke to the Carolina media earlier this offseason on how he approaches teaching players the game of football and everything that comes with it. 

“I’ve coached in the NFL before,” Snow said. “Here’s the deal: anytime that you can make somebody better and they know you can, they’re all the same – whether they’re 18 or 25. I have kids that have gone through all those stages; people are people. So it’s not that big of a difference – now, if they don’t think you can make them better, then they don’t listen – but if they know you can make them better, there’s not that much of a difference.

“You’re a teacher. And you’re teaching people how to play football….Even when a person is 26 years old, you can still learn from older people, things about life. So we’re still educating people even though we’re dealing with men. I’m 64 years old, so I’m sure I can shed some light on some subjects that they need some education on.”

Talent has never been a question with Apple; he’s been given chance after chance because of what he has the potential to do at one of the most important positions in the game. It’s all about how much Apple wants to be the best version of himself he can be—as an individual, as a teammate, as a student of the game, as a young man, etc.

If he puts his effort there, this won’t be his last starting job.

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