In need of a starting cornerback but running into obstacles trying to secure one of the top available free agents, the Raiders turned their attention on Wednesday to a former top 10 draft pick they believe still has plenty of upside.
Eli Apple might not have been the Raiders’ first choice at a position they deemed a priority at the outset of free agency. But with former Dallas Cowboys corner Byron Jones heading to the Miami Dolphins on a record-breaking contract and Denver Broncos star Chris Harris declining their overtures in favor of signing with the Los Angeles Chargers, the Raiders moved on to Plan B.
That turned out to be Apple, the 10th overall pick in the 2016 draft who got off to a rough NFL start during two rocky seasons with the New York Giants before rebounding over the last year-and-a-half after a trade to the New Orleans Saints.
Apple had moments of brilliance in New Orleans, where his skills as a press cover corner were a fit opposite Marshon Lattimore. Apple also occasionally played in relief of Lattimore. But the 51 starts he’s made over the first four years of his career have been a frustrating mix of reliability and inconsistency, hence the short stays in both New York and New Orleans.
For his career he has three interceptions and 33 passes defended.
But he is 24 years old, and the flashes of above-average talent coupled with his rangy, 6-foot-1-inch size, athleticism, youth and confidence create hope by the Raiders that it’s just a matter of him consistently putting it all together.
The plan for now is pairing Apple alongside promising second-year corner Travon Mullen, a 6-2, ball-hawking defensive back who came on over the last part of last season. Mullen’s big finish to his rookie year is exactly what the Raiders envisioned upon drafting him in the second round last year. They hope he and Apple can complement each other as a big, physical cornerback tandem able to flourish in man coverage.
That dynamic, combined with the pass rush promise of second-year defensive ends Maxx Crosby and Clelin Ferrell and the additions of interior and edge pass rush production in free-agent pickups Maliek Collins and Carl Nassib, could create more quarterback pressure and sacks and, ultimately, improve a pass defense that finished 25th in the NFL.
In that regard, Apple brings considerable experience and a definite level of competency. According to Pro Football Focus, he was proficient in press coverage in 2019 while allowing 0.87 yards allowed per coverage snap as a press outside corner, 13th best in the NFL. He is also a highly regarded tackler, with PFF giving him an 81.2 run defense grade last year, seventh-best among NFL cornerbacks. He finished with 56 solo tackles.
Apple, though, has had issues avoiding penalties, a product of his aggressive style of play. He was flagged for 21 penalties during his stay in New Orleans, 11 of which were for pass interference.
The Raiders aren’t necessarily done at cornerback. Nickell Robey-Coleman, who the Los Angeles Rams parted ways with Wednesday in a cost-savings move, is available and has been a valuable defender in the slot, and Detroit Lions star Darius Slay has been linked to the Raiders as a trade possibility.
If the big-game hunting they did chasing Jones and Harris provides a glimpse into their thinking, making a big move at that position remains a possibility.