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The Saints make a move to shore up their secondary

What can Eli Apple bring to the table?

The hot rumor going around over the last week was that the Saints might make a legitimate play for Patrick Peterson (who played his college ball at LSU). Peterson asked for a trade from Arizona, and the 28-year-old All-Pro cornerback and kick returner would have massively strengthened the cornerback position, with a legitimate debate as to whether he or Marshon Lattimore would’ve been the top guy.

The Cardinals didn’t want to trade Peterson though, and between the size of the contract and the compensation Arizona would have been seeking, it seemed like a difficult gap to breach in order to make a match. So the Saints went a different direction, trading with the New York Giants for cornerback Eli Apple, a talented player (and former top-10 pick) who’d struggled with off-field issues in his career and whom the current regime apparently didn’t feel would be part of their rebuild, even though he’s just 23 years old.

The Saints gave up a 2019 fourth-round pick and a 2020 seventh-round pick, and even though their 2019 draft is completely gutted (one pick in the first four rounds!), it’s very unlikely they’d find a player as talented as Apple with that fourth-round pick. (And certainly not if they use their day-3 picks the way they did in April: their fourth-round pick from this year is currently on the Los Angeles Rams practice squad.)

Apple probably shouldn’t have been a top-ten pick: Some observers (including me) suspect the Giants panicked at #10 after their board was demolished. (Their interest in linebacker offensive tackle Jack Conklin and linebacker Leonard Floyd leaked before the draft, and the Titans and Bears, respectively, traded ahead of the Giants to #8 and #9 to take them.) That said, most grades I saw on Apple rated him between a late first-rounder and a third-rounder, and that entire range is better than a fourth-round pick (the seventh-rounder in 2020 is negligible). Apple is still young, too; like Marshon Lattimore, he came out of college as a redshirt sophomore and wouldn’t turn 21 until the summer before his first NFL season. He’s only 23 now. For comparison, Anthony Averett, a cornerback taken in the fourth round by the Baltimore Ravens this year, is older than Apple. (In an odd bit of trivia, Lattimore is no longer the highest-drafted cornerback from Ohio State on the team.)

There are reasons to be optimistic for Apple as the team’s #2 cornerback. (There are reasons to be concerned, of course, but we’ll get to those.) He’s a very good athlete, not on the level of Lattimore but well above-average, especially for his size. He’s played well when he’s been on the field this year, missing two games with a calf injury but playing five games and breaking up five passes. We can see on a play like this one (at the top of the screen):

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Apple’s form isn’t perfect– few players are as smooth or have the kind of excellent technique and mirroring Lattimore does– but Apple stays with Alshon Jeffery and doesn’t bite on his first break on the out-and-up route. His athleticism allows him to stay with the play, and his size allows him to avoid getting outmuscled for the ball, (It’s difficult to tell, but Apple’s tight coverage seems to force Carson Wentz to throw it further ahead of Jeffery than he would like– and Apple gets his hand on the ball to break up the pass anyway.)

Passes defensed numbers aren’t always the best measure, but Apple has defended five in his five games this year. Better evidence comes in Football Outsiders’ defensive statistics. The Giants are 26th in the league in covering WR1s, and 5th covering WR2s. On the defensive left (offensive right) of the field, they’re 7th in the league at covering passing, while 14th on the other side and 32nd down the middle. Janoris Jenkins is the top cornerback in New York, and usually plays the defensive right side; Apple is the second cornerback and normally plays on the left side. It’s not a perfect match, in part because Apple missed two games, but the evidence suggests his play has been pretty solid.

Apple’s value has been depressed in part because of the off-field controversies around him in 2017. Apple had run-ins with teammates and coaches, to the point where safety Landon Collins called him “a cancer” (though he later walked back his comments) and was suspended by the team. This seems to have been largely caused by family drama; Apple had a falling out with his stepfather Tim, and his mother Annie has been blamed by several sources for being too vocal and controlling in her son’s life. (It would be unfair of me to speculate as to who bears responsibility for what; this nj.com article seems to shed some light in a reasonably fair and objective manner.)

Whatever the case, Apple’s play significantly fell off in 2017 but seems to have rebounded this year, and he’s young enough that there’s still a lot of reason to hope for growth from him. He seems like a worthwhile investment for the Saints’ cornerback problem, especially since adding a player at a position like cornerback has a cascading effect on the defense: If Apple steps in as the #2 cornerback and thus covers #2 WRs, then Ken Crawley can stick to #3 WRs, which he’ll have more success against, and on down the line.

The hope is that in New Orleans, Apple will not only have a fresh start but a more solid support system, joining two of his teammates in the Ohio State secondary, Marshon Lattimore and Vonn Bell. (Michael Thomas was also their teammate at Ohio State.) On the field, the idea is that the familiarity will make communication in the secondary easier, and that Apple’s athleticism will allow for a greater variety of coverages to be executed successfully, whereas Crawley was fairly successful in man coverage but often struggled in zone. (Crawley also didn’t have the athleticism to keep up with some of the speedier second wide receivers such as DeSean Jackson.)

Apple reported he expects to play on Sunday, which had been in question as he was still nursing an ankle injury. While it’s not certain, we should get a chance Sunday night against the Minnesota Vikings to see what Apple can bring to the defense. And it won’t be a moment too soon: The Vikings have one of the league’s most productive receivers in Adam Thielen and another dynamic top-flight player in Stefon Diggs. The Vikings have rebounded from a sluggish start to get to 4-2-1, which makes them serious competition for playoff seeding. The Saints will have to play their best on both sides of the ball to take this one, and how Eli Apple works into the secondary could be a significant part of that. And even if it’s not, strengthening one of the weakest parts of the defense is vital to the Saints’ Super Bowl this year, and they made what seems to me to be a solid value play to upgrade the unit enough for it to no longer be the liability it has been for stretches of the season.

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