The New Orleans Saints were supposed to have one of the best secondaries in the NFL.
It hasn’t played out that way. All the promise the secondary showed last season was supposed to lead to forward progress. Instead, this group has moonwalked.
Patrick Robinson landed on injured reserve, and that didn't help, but even some of the incumbents have stood in place or slid.
Cornerback Ken Crawley, who looked poised to break out this year, ended up getting benched for the start of a Week 3 game against the Atlanta Falcons. Strong safety Kurt Coleman, who was signed this offseason, is only playing in base packages. Some of the other players have had off days along the way.
So it made sense when rumors swirled the past few days about the Saints' interest in various cornerbacks.
The cousin of Arizona’s Patrick Peterson ignited the rumors by announcing the team had interest in him, and New Orleans was the cornerback’s preferred destination, but that deal didn’t happen.
Instead, former New York Giants cornerback Eli Apple is now a Saint.
Apple isn’t one of the four or five best cornerbacks in the NFL. His addition won’t make national analysts trip over themselves to declare the Saints the new favorites to win the Super Bowl, as the addition of Peterson would have. But the acquisition of Apple strengthens a potential trouble area, and that might be enough for a team that is one of the NFL’s few legitimate Super Bowl contenders.
The former Ohio State Buckeye has created some turbulence for himself throughout his career, which should be expected considering the 2016 first-round pick was traded to New Orleans in exchange for draft picks in the fourth round in 2019 and the seventh round in 2020.
After having a solid rookie year, Apple’s 2017 season ended after he got into an argument with a member of the coaching staff. Giants safety Landon Collins later called him a locker-room cancer.
Apple has since atoned through public statements and seemingly in the locker room, as everything has been silent since his suspension. He has also played well, allowing 18 receptions on 29 targets for 225 yards, which is good for an 86.1 pass rating when targeted.
Crawley, by comparison, has surrendered a 154.8 passer rating against, according to Pro Football Focus.
The New Orleans Saints have traded with the New York Giants for cornerback Eli Apple, the team announced Tuesday afternoon.
That statistic isn’t a direct reflection of how Crawley has played. The team’s safeties have left him in some bad spots at times, and the Saints defense was struggling with communication earlier in the season, when it surrendered a bunch of explosive plays. But the Saints felt the need to upgrade this position, which says something about the production it has received.
Judging from all of Apple’s snaps from this season, it is clear why the Saints felt he was worth adding to the roster. Not only should he feel comfortable joining a secondary that includes fellow Ohio State alums Marshon Lattimore, Vonn Bell and Kurt Coleman, but his skills seem to fit the things the Saints like to do.
Apple is comfortable both pressing and playing deep zones. During games against Jacksonville and Dallas to start this season, he showed off his ability in both areas.
On one play against the Jaguars, Apple threw a jam on wide receiver Donte Moncrief, shadowed him up the sideline, and then broke up a back-shoulder throw. Later, in Cover 3, Apple had an impressive play in which he carried a receiver up the sideline, dropped down to switch when the safety picked up his initial mark, and then sat between the two routes to create bracket coverage on both players when another defensive player picked up the underneath route.
The Saints often ask their cornerbacks to play some deeper zones in Cover 3 looks or when disguising coverages in other zone looks. It hasn't always worked and has led to some busted coverages and explosive plays. Apple can potentially offer an upgrade if he blends in quickly with the existing players.
Those were easily his two best games of the season. Apple missed the next two, including one against the Saints, before returning against the Carolina Panthers. Both Carolina and the Philadelphia Eagles went after Apple a little. He held up well, despite surrendering some catches.
Philadelphia wide receiver Nelson Agholor beat Apple for a 58-yard touchdown, but it came after Carson Wentz held the ball for 4 seconds and the safety bit on an underneath route. Still, Apple shouldn’t have let Agholor get behind him, so the blame also falls on his shoulders.
Philadelphia threw at Apple 11 times in that game. The six other receptions he gave up gained just a little over 50 yards. He also broke up two passes to wide receiver Alshon Jeffery. On his second-to-last target of the game, Apple successfully sorted out a bunch formation — which is something the Saints have struggled to do at times this season — and broke up a pass to tight end Zach Ertz.
It's easy to see why the Saints were attracted to this player, and he might look even better here. New Orleans has a better front seven than the Giants, which should help him see more hurried throws, and the players around him in the secondary should at least be comparable to those in the Giants secondary, if not better.
Overall, it looks like Apple has improved upon a lot of the things that caused him to have a poor reputation at times in New York — and if that improvement is real, he should help shore up some of the things that has caused the Saints problems.
Apple isn’t going to be a shutdown cornerback. He’s going to give up some catches, but he shouldn’t make a lot of mistakes or bust many coverages.
That might be all the Saints need.