Eli Apple: Setting Expectations

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]To say Eli Apple had a disappointing 2017 NFL season would be a colossal understatement. In the tumultuous locker room that was the 2017 New York Giants, Apple had some of the more bewildered actions that sent a whirlwind of doubt into the hearts and minds of Giants Nation, while adopting the player persona, to the public, of the egregious season that was unfit for this revered franchise. I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the fact that Apple was dealing with personal matters that were most certainly in the forefront of his mind. I’m sure that was, at least, part of the catalyst of the downward trend.

Upon the conclusion of the 2018 NFL Draft, I found myself very excited with the Giants offensive weaponry and the fact that attention has been brought to the offensive line, but there was still something that was troubling – the defense. There’s an overstated nature to the fact that the Giants will struggle just because of the 3-4 switch in base packages, but in today’s NFL teams are generally in Nickel/Subpackages the majority of the time.

The defensive system will be different, due to James Bettcher assuming the spot as the defensive coordinator, but the struggles won’t stem solely in base situations. There was/is a dearth of proven talent on this defense, especially on the edge and at the corner position.

Giants brass recognized this issue and signed veteran EDGE Connor Barwin, who will bring leadership and is a schematic fit in base personnel, while also drafting a defensive back out of Western Michigan named Sam Beal in the third round of the Supplemental Draft, which eliminates the Giants 2019 third round selection. During the first practice of training camp, Sam Beal injured his shoulder and may not see the field again until 2019.

Relying on Beal before the injury was a parlous plan of attack, but it offered promise. Now the Giants are left with Janoris Jenkins, Riley Curtis, William Gay, Grant Haley (UDFA out of Penn State), B.W. Webb, Donte Deayon, and of course Eli Apple.

This becomes perilous due to the fact that the Giants don’t have any proven EDGE rushers outside of Oliver Vernon, which is going to force James Bettcher to bring 5 or 6 man pressures on the blitz. In 2017 with the Cardinals, Bettcher blitzed 37% of the time to get extreme pressure on the quarterback and that was with the 2017 sack leader Chandler Jones on his unit.

With more rushers up front that means more responsibility on the back end, especially in man coverage; the Cardinals were also a top 5 team when it comes to playing Cover 1 defense, so competent cornerback play is going to be vital to the success of this team.

Before the 2017 season, I wrote that the Giants success was contingent on the development and execution of the tackles Ereck Flowers and Bobby Hart; sadly, we witnessed how that transpired. I believe the maturation of Eli Apple’s play on the field could be a defining factor that would make this team significantly more competitive, while also possibly pushing the team over Vegas’s number of 7 wins. Obviously there are so many other variables that are at play, but if there’s one player on this team that needs to step up for himself, and the team, it’s Eli Apple. We’ve all seen the extreme lethargy that has shined Apple in a negative light in 2017.  

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One could blame this on Apple, which is incredibly fair, or the culture that ended up fostering this type of behavior. But one thing is for certain, this is absolutely unacceptable and it stems from a lack of competitive toughness. In the second clip of the video above, you see Apple’s amateurish “attempted” tackle on Robert Woods. There are other instances through the tape where Apple avoided head on collisions with players that boasted momentum. This type of timid nature must change from the 3rd year player.

With a new culture, coaching staff, and a much shorter leash, it can. Apple is not the strongest tackler or the most athletic corner on the field, but if he’s surrounded in the correct environment, the environment that head coach Pat Shurmur is trying to cultivate at the moment, then he can provide value to this team.

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The two clips above take place in a pivotal Week 5 game against the Chargers, with both teams being winless and the Chargers traveling to MetLife for a one o’clock start. Initially, Apple does a good job as a force defender, boxing the ball-carrier inside and putting himself in a position to constrict the alley. You see him key the screen, plant/drive to put himself in position, and square up to the offensive lineman.

As RB Melvin Gordon approaches and is three yards away from Apple, Eli jumps three yards to the side and backpedals to avoid the direct collision with the lineman, which makes the alley vastly wider. This most certainly is not an easy assignment for Apple, but it gave Gordon a lot more room to operate on this 2nd and 11.

In the second clip, Apple does a good job containing Gordon to the inside; he disengages from the wide receiver’s block and is about 3 yards away from Gordan. Apple seems a bit hesitant to jump into contact, which may have allowed Gordon to pick up a few extra yards. Apple’s angle to the ball was elongated and there seems to be the slightest hesitation to react and explode towards the ball-carrier. This indecision and reluctant mindset to aggressively tackle the ball-carrier reared its head when players that possessed momentum were charging in Apple’s direction.  

There is one other aspect of these two plays that I have yet to address and that is the fact that the construct of the defense was broken from the start, leaving Apple in a couple of dicey situations. The first clip saw Apple being the only Giants player that was close to the boundary side numbers, which was where the screen was run. All the other Giants defenders were by the hashes or towards the field.

This left Apple with no alley defender and all by himself, while the second clip displayed the fact that both defenders to the boundary, nickelback (Andrew Adams) and defensive end (Jason Pierre-Paul), were pancaked, leaving Apple by himself on the sideline once again. Obviously, these are not advantageous situations to befall Apple, but the details have me wishing for more from the young player.

One of my bigger concerns with Apple is his ability to process the game and focus. His situational awareness tends to be hot and cold; that resulted in game deciding plays in 2017. Below you’ll see the final play against the Eagles in Week 3, which put the division rival into position for their kicker, rookie Jake Elliott, to make a 61 yard field goal.

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The score was tied at 24 and the Eagles had the ball on their 38 yard line, with 7 seconds left in the game. In this situation, there are two main rules the Giants must try to impose: 1) Do not allow the Eagles to get into field goal position, and 2) If they do get into field goal position, do not let them get out of bounds to stop the clock, make them force the timeout, which is a much more secondary rule given the fact that there is seven seconds left.

Apple’s responsibilities lie to the boundary sideline, with the Eagles in trips to the boundary. The Eagles devise a High/Low concept, where the #3 receiver heads towards the flat. If this ball is completed to #3, the most he will get is to the 50 yard line, which would tick about 4 seconds off the clock. That is, of course, hypothetical because Apple jumped the underneath route, which left the High out route open and effectively led to the game winning field goal by the Eagles.

This is a mental error by Apple here; he has to be aware of the situation, the yards to gain which would put the Eagles into field goal range, and the amount of time left on the clock. In the second clip you see a different type of mistake on a 3rd and 2. The Lions motion Golden Tate to stack with Marvin Jones to the field, while Apple gives 5 yards of cushion to Tate in man coverage.

Apple then sees Dominique Rodgers Cromartie and Jones engaged in what looks like it could be blocking, while he sees Matt Stafford roll out to his side, on a move the pocket type of play. With Apple’s eyes on the backfield and his hips positioned inward, he can’t effectively leverage his assignment, which is Tate, who was given an incredibly easy release to the outside. Apple was way out of position, did not attempt to press, and again seemed like he struggled to know the situation.

I’m not bringing light to this to call Apple out, but to bring attention to the fact that some of his struggles are mentally related, which could be reversed in a new climate where coaching can prevail and limit these types of awareness related issues. So much of player performance is tied to how coaches are able to develop younger players. Every player responds differently to different coaching styles, and it’ll be important to see how Apple responds to Shurmur and his staff.

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All of these clips are misjudgments by Apple where he reacts to things that he assumes. The motion of Travis Benjamin prompts Jenkins to scream over to Dominique Rodgers Cromartie to follow Benjamin in man coverage, but Apple sees that his assignment, Keenan Allen, stays home to block.

Apple assumes that it is an end around to Benjamin and starts chasing him, but it was a misdirection toss to Gordon to Apple’s original side. This leads to the Chargers having numbers on the playside, which led to a pulling offensive lineman, Russell Okung, isolated on a cornerback, Janoris Jenkins. Hunter Henry then has an easier path to seal off Jason Pierre Paul. By the time Apple realizes the misdirection, Gordon is at the numbers and turning the edge.

In the second clip, Apple falls for an RPO run by reading the blocking of the offensive lineman and assuming that the ball was handed off to Legarrette Blount. This led to what should have been an easy first down play for Zach Ertz, but Landon Collins forced the fumble and Apple showed good burst and awareness to fall on top it.

The third clip was Apple not playing through the whistle. Initially, Apple does a good job staying on Alshon Jeffery’s hip through the outside release. Jeffery runs a 20 yard comeback and then improvises once he sees Wentz do the same; Jeffery breaks off his comeback and starts sprinting down the sideline. Apple thought the play was over and lowered his guard once he realized he was in good position to defend the comeback and Carson Wentz was rolling out. This led to Apple scurrying to cover Jeffery, who created 4 yards of seperation up the sideline, which forced Apple to interfere with Jeffery.

These are mistakes that come down to focus and keying/diagnosing what is actually being presented on the field, and this is something that Apple is very inconsistent at doing. He has flashed an ability to trust his eyes, utilize discipline, and key the design of the play in order to leverage his responsibilities and put the defense in a good position.     

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We see Apple do a very good job communicating, keying/diagnosing, and attacking downhill on a 3rd and 14 against the Lions. The Giants are playing 2 high, while rushing 4 and having the 5 underneath defenders guarding the sticks. Apple communicates to his inside defenders that Marvin Jones is running the underneath route, while simultaneous noticing the checkdown route of Theo Riddick, who is one of the more dangerous receiving backs in football.

He plants and drives downhill as Riddick makes the catch. Apple then wraps up and spins Theo to the ground to force a punt. And while I would love for him to drive through the tackle instead of leaving his feet, this play showed communication and concentration, two things that are not always present with Apple.

In the second clip, we see Apple key a run play to the boundary. What separates this play from the previous ones shown in this article is his willingness to disengage, close width, and attack. He sets up outside of the blocking wide receiver, disengages, and goes low at RB Jay Ajayi, in order to make the tackle. This play also shows the ability to process and be aggressive, while still leveraging his responsibilities and not playing recklessly.

In the third clip, Apple trusts what he sees and doesn’t hesitate; he watches Burton open his hips towards Wentz and he sees the quarterback start to throw. Apple reacts very quickly and plants/drives downhill to give Burton a punishing blow. This is an encouraging play by Apple, due to his lack of hesitation and the violence in the hit, which are two aspects of his game that aren’t always apparent.  

While he shows encouraging signs, there are other types of struggles that Apple has faced throughout his short career. Apple has also been inconsistent with finding the ball while it’s in the air.

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These two clips show these struggles; Apple handles the stuttered release by Jones fine and rides him up the red line, while staying on his hip in Cover 1. Apple loses focus as Jones gets closer the the end zone, though, and he relies on contact to feel where Jones is headed while not looking back. By the time he realized the ball was thrown, Jones had already stopped and the ball was just about in his grasps.

The second clip is a much more difficult task, for it’s on the goaline and he is facing Mike Evans, who is one of the bigger more physical receivers in the league. Apple is isolated with Evans and he gives the receiver a bit too much cushion out of his release while struggling to close width as Evans works vertical. Apple sees Evans go up for the ball, but doesn’t attempt to get his head around, which leads to an easy touchdown for a leaping Mike Evans.

Apple needs to develop a better feel for these situations when the ball is in the air. He needs to be able to get himself in position and locate the ball, so he can bat it down or intercept the pass. This would also mitigate the penalties that Apple is susceptible to committing. If he gets his head around to locate the ball the flag usually isn’t thrown even if there is some contact, which would help Apple because he tends to get grabby at the catchpoint and on hard breaking routes.

While these issues relate to technique and focus, I also think they’re athletically based. In this next video, you’ll see a few clips that show how Apple doesn’t always explode out of his breaks in a fluent manner, and how he struggles to consistently accelerate and burst while changing direction, which is something that was evident in the Alshon Jeffery clip as well.   

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Right off the bat, you can see how he loses focus in the first clip; he stops moving his feet and comes up and out of his stance as he assumes that Terrance Williams is slowing his route down, but Williams sinks his hips and explodes inside. Apple does not possess the elite change of direction skills to be losing focus, which is evident in all of these videos.

For a cornerback he’s a solid athlete, but he’s not a player that can lower his guard. If he lowers his guard and loses focus, teams can make him pay. This same concept is interconnected with his technique; when he utilizes poor technique, he gets burned.

In the second video, he is playing man coverage on one of the best slot receivers in the league, Keenan Allen, and he gives him an easy inside release with no robber or zone help inside. Apple is not a natural nickel corner, but you can see how he utilizes poor technique in this instance and how that is juxtaposed with his average acceleration, explosiveness, and footspeed. It’s not a recipe for success for the Giants and it’s up to the new coaching staff, especially defensive backs coach Lou Anarumo, to help mitigate these technical flaws in order for Apple to not have to rely on athletic ability as much as he has tried to do in the past.

The third clip is another example of how poor technique led to an open receiver; Apple attempts to press Tyrell Williams at the line of scrimmage in Cover 1, but he misses and gives Williams an easy outside release. Despite having almost 32” arms, Apple struggles with location and strength in press coverage, and you can see how Williams has him beat by a few steps before Apple falls down.

Covering Jordy Nelson with Aaron Rodgers in the redzone is a very tall task, but I wanted to highlight a few things about this clip from Apple’s rookie season; Apple does a good job at initially taking away the inside of Nelson, but when Jordy stops to go back inside, Apple overpursues and lets Jordy cross his face. This prompts Apple to flip his hips inside and he lacks the change of direction to plant and drive back outside once he sees Nelson work towards the sidelines. This is an example of a savvy veteran in Nelson defeating a young rookie in Apple and it shouldn’t come as a surprise, but it does show the loss of balance while quickly changing direction that Apple demonstrates on film.

This article is not meant to tear apart Apple’s game, but to bring a realistic expectation to the former top 10 pick. A lot of Giants fans have written the young player off and I believe the new regime has quieted a lot of the ruckus that surrounded Apple. Apple is salvageable and the Giants will need him to step up this season. In the next two videos, you will see his recovery speed and his ability to handle deep, non-breaking, routes:

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The first clip is in Apple’s rookie season, lined up close to the field side numbers. He falls for Tate’s double move hard; sinks his hips and is beat by about three yards to the outside and deep, but Apple doesn’t give up on the play. He recovers and gets to the catchpoint, where he inserts his arm and knocks the ball away from Tate, which saved a touchdown. Apple showed good acceleration to recover while going vertical in these types of scenarios.

The second clip was against the Lions again, only this time it was 2017. Apple gives Jones the inside release in a Cover 4 defense, where Apple’s responsibility is the deep quarter to the field. Apple is isolated on Marvin Jones, through a 9 route; initially, Jones looks like he could have pulled away from Apple, but Apple stays on the outside hip of Jones, while not interfering with him. Apple then locates the ball and realizes that it is a bit overthrown, but he is right on Jones the entire route showing the speed and location ability (in this clip) to stay with the athletic receiver deep. Apple has shown the ability to stay on the hip of speed receivers down the field when there is no break (i.e. wheels/9’s).

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The first clip is against DeSean Jackson down in Tampa Bay on a very important 3rd and 10. Apple is lined up towards the field in a Cover 1 Robber, look, with the free safety starting the play to the boundary side hashes. Jackson releases outside and Apple flips his hips to stay step for step with Jackson down the field. Apple is able to get his head around to locate the pass early through the route, which allows him to easily knock the pass away, for he is in the correct position and utilizing the correct technique.

The second clip is from 2016, where the speedy Brandin Cooks has Apple to the field and he releases outside. The Giants are playing Cover 1, with Landon Collins as the roaming centerfielder; Apple is able to ride Cooks up the redline, while staying on the receivers hip. Apple then gets his head around to locate the ball, albeit a bit late, but this negated any potential pass interference calls, due to the slight contact by both players.

The third clip shows the Giants in another single high look, with man coverage underneath and Apple is playing nickel on Doug Baldwin in the three wide set to the field. Seattle calls an excellent pick/wheel route, which was designed to cause traffic and free up Baldwin. Jersey’s own, Tanner McEvoy, runs a short pivot route with Baldwin coming around his outside, but Apple is able to avoid McEvoy and stay with Baldwin throughout the wheel. He utilizes an excellent angle to regain the hip of Baldwin while getting his head turned around to locate the ball. Excellent position, excellent ability to execute, and excellent focus. These are very encouraging signs for Apple and he tends to do well in these situations, when he is focused and doesn’t have to rely as much on his ability to change direction.  

Apple doesn’t consistently exert the best technique or effort and has issues with processing/staying focused, but this does not mean he isn’t redeemable. Apple has qualities that can be utilized on this Giants’ defense and if Big Blue wants to be in position to win more games this season, they’re going to need quality secondary play, so the coaching staff must find a way to maximize these qualities and keep him focused. 2017 was most certainly a year to forget for Apple, but he has a new opportunity playing for Big Blue with the suspension behind him and a fresh slate from the new regime. He can be a solid cornerback, if he stays focused, but don’t expect him to be a player that he is not.

Nick Falato wrote this article. Follow him on twitter @nickfalato and check out his other work here, including his breakdown of Wake Forest defensive end Duke Ejiofor and a look at USC quarterbacks of the past and how it applies to New York Jets QB Sam Darnold.

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