I might be indulging in a bit of understatement when I say that Eli Apple wasn't a very popular pick among fans of the New York Giants.
Part of that is because of a perceived "panic" on behalf of Jerry Reese, but also because he wasn't linked to the Giants, and we concentrated our attention elsewhere. So after being blindsided by the pick, let's take a quick look and see just what the Giants got when they drafted Eli Apple
Let's face it, if you're drafting a cornerback, you are doing it because of his ability to defend the pass. If they can't do that, they're not playing corner. You want to see a player with loose, fluid hips, quick footwork, a closing burst in off coverages, and the efficient hand use to re-route receivers in man coverage.
Play 1 vs. Northern Illinois
Our first play is pretty straight forward. Northern Illinois is just going to pick up the first down, and the play was never intended to go toward Apple's man. The slot receiver is matched up on the safety, and there's no way he can come down-hill and cover the flat route before the ball gets there.
But let's watch Apple on the play and see what we can learn.
He is in man -- but not press -- coverage on the outside receiver at the bottom of the screen, and his backpedal is quick and smooth off the snap. When he flips his hips and transitions from his backpedal it is likewise oily smooth, not sacrificing any speed or position as he turns to run with the receiver.
Apple does a great job of staying in the receiver's hip pocket as he runs down the field, keeping inside leverage so he can use the sideline as another defender. If this hadn't been a quick-hitting pass to the slot the ball wouldn't have been going to Apple's man anyway, he was locked down.
After the slot receiver makes the catch and the outside receiver starts blocking, you can see Apple briefly engage. He keeps the outside leverage he had in coverage, forcing the blocker back toward the sideline. Again, this doesn't especially matter since the receiver is run out of bounds before he can turn upfield. However, if the safety was sufficiently out of position or had missed a tackle, Apple was in good position to either force the play back inside or work off the block to make the tackle.
Play 2 vs.Michigan State
One of the biggest problems the Giants have had over the past few years is getting off the field on third down, especially at the end of games. Not only have they lacked the defensive players to do so, but they haven't played great situational football.
Here, Apple does just that.
Apple is matched up on Aaron Burbridge, who had beaten him a couple times on comeback routes earlier in the game -- Burbridge is a good receiver, and Apple was also slowed by soggy field conditions. But instead of playing the receiver, Apple plays the first down, immediately retreating to just short of the first down marker. If Burbridge runs to the sticks, Apple would be in position to make a play on the ball. But as it happens, it's another comeback, with the idea of putting him in position to pick up the first down with his feet.
It's a good idea, but Apple does a better job of staying disciplined and coming down hill to make a good tackle to keep Burbridge from picking up the first down.
It isn't exactly a win for Apple -- that would have been an incomplete pass or a turnover -- the offense made a gain, kept the clock moving, and got another chance to pick up the first down. But Apple kept them from picking up the first down and gave his defense a chance to get off the field.
We'll call it a draw, but this was a good play for Apple.
While pass coverage is the corner's primary job, having a corner who can defend the run and screen passes is a great bonus. A healthy Prince Amukamara was a big part of reason why the Giants had the best run defense in the league in the first part of 2015. A front seven that builds a wall at the line of scrimmage doesn't do much good if the players on the edge can't finish the play.
Play 1 vs. Michigan State
This play is on second and short with the clock winding down in a tied game, and for Michigan State that is usually a running down.
And since this is Michigan State, that means power football, in this case a power counter run. The offense lines up with the strong side of the formation to the left with the tight end lined up next to the left tackle and the fullback behind the B-gap between the left tackle and left guard. The formation forces the defense to concentrate its strength to that side of the formation
After the snap, however, the fullback pulls to the right to block the left defensive end, blowing open a hole for the running back. Or at least he would have, except for the second level of the Ohio State defense.
First, the safety comes down-hill as soon as he sees the fullback make his block. He helps to fill the hole, and forces the running back to run parallel to the line of scrimmage, directly into the waiting arms of Apple.
Apple appeared to be in man coverage off the snap, but dropped into a shallow zone, defending the first down marker. As soon as he identifies the running play, Apple explodes downhill, taking a great angle to the ball carrier, wrapping him up and helping to limit him to maybe half a yard.
Apple shows terrific awareness of the play, discipline in his assignment, and a willingness to get his hands dirty in the running game.
Play 2 vs. Michigan State
This isn't exactly a running play, but the screen game does serve as an extension of the running game, and defending the screen is something the Giants have struggled with in the past.
Right off the snap the running back comes up in pass protection, making it look as though this a straight pass play, but as soon as the defenders start to suck in, he releases out to the side of the formation. At the same time the center pulls out into space to set up the blocking for the play.
Thompson is in man coverage on the wide receiver who runs a slant over the middle, but quickly recognizes the screen pass, and breaks off his coverage. Ordinarily a center blocking a defensive back is a hilarious mismatch, but two things happen to let Apple blow up the play.
First, the center, Jack Allen, gets chipped by Joshua Perry, throwing off his angle and timing slightly. Next, Apple recognizes the play so quickly, commits, and comes downhill so fast that he simply beats Jack to the spot. By outrunning the blocking, Apple slows the ball carrier and forces him back inside where Perry can make the tackle for the loss.
Once again, it is Apple's athleticism, awareness, and discipline within the system that allows Apple to help make the play and keep Michigan State from picking up the first down.
Jerry Reese and the Giants probably didn't panic when they selected Apple at 10th overall. Getting some distance from the pick, it's pretty easy to see why they favored Apple over Vernon Hargreaves III. The Giants like big, long, and fast secondary players, and despite his inexperience Apple is all three and Hargreaves is none of them. To put a point on Apple's physical tools, (per ESPN's research department) he ran the fourth fastest 40-yard dash of any cornerback 6-foot-1 or taller since 2006. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie was another, giving the Giants two of the four fastest "big" corners drafted into the NFL in the last 10 years.
He has all the tools to be a high-level starter in the NFL, and in some ways he reminds of the Giants' selection of Jason Pierre-Paul in 2010. At the time Pierre-Paul was athletically gifted, but inexperienced and very raw. His selection was viewed as an embarrassing reach by the Giants, who had high-level starters in Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyiora, and Mathias Kiwanuka. But that depth gave the Giants an opportunity to let JPP develop into one of the best 43 defensive ends in the NFL. This time around, the Giants have two very good starting corners in Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Janoris Jenkins. That depth and experience will give Apple a chance to develop and really learn how to use his impressive physical tools.