Giants coaches spent part of last week talking up the progress of rookie cornerback Eli Apple. Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo said the first-round pick was developing “quicker than maybe we expected” and safeties coach David Merritt said he believed that “this kid is going to be one of the great ones for us down the road.”
The only thing left for Apple to do, they agreed, was to actually do it.
On Saturday, he took care of that.
Apple passed his first big on-field test as a starting cornerback when, in the 21-20 win over the Jets, he was charged with covering Eric Decker. Apple was targeted three times and did not allow a completion.
“He competed, he was physical at the line of scrimmage,” Ben McAdoo said on a Sunday conference call. “He competed down the field. They went after him a little bit on the press man coverage and he didn’t back down, he stepped up. He did a nice job.”
“It was interesting for sure,” Apple said. “(Decker) is a guy who is a physical receiver, very fast. They tried to target me a lot in the beginning and I kind of expected that. I just wanted to compete and show my stuff.”
Apple, who made his first start after coming off the bench in the opener against the Dolphins and missing last week’s preseason game against the Bills with a knee injury, said he expected to be picked on a bit by the Jets and their veteran quarterback-receiver combo.
“As a corner you want to get your chances to make an impact on the game,” he said. “Anytime they target you it’s an opportunity . . . Because I’m a rookie they want to see if I’m a guy who can actually hold up his end. They’re definitely going to test me. That’s how it’s going to go this year.”
How’d he feel he did on Saturday?
“I think I responded pretty well on a couple of throws,” he said.
He went stride for stride with Decker down the right sideline on one pass, broke up a slant in the red zone with a nifty poke from behind Decker, and was able to run with fellow rookie Robby Anderson on another deep route.
If Apple is able to maintain this level of play into the regular season, it would free up Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to play in the slot against three-receiver packages. That’s the lineup the Giants went with Saturday night after veteran nickelback Leon Hall left the game early with a concussion.
Apple was not flagged for any penalties, but replays showed all of the plays — particularly the two deep throws — were laced with grabbing and shoving from both parties involved. On the coverage of Decker on the go route Apple had a grasp of his opponent’s jersey. On the pass to Anderson, Apple at one point reached out and tugged at the collar of the receiver’s shoulder pads.
That is one of the habits the Giants knew they had to break Apple of when he came into the league. College rules are more lenient than those of the NFL when it comes to cornerbacks using their hand, and Apple has had to get accustomed to the new set of statutes. However, the Giants don’t want to rein in the skill set that makes him one of the more visceral corners on the team.
“Eli, we’re just going to keep coaching him to be physical, playing the technique the right way, and just keep competing,” McAdoo said.
On Saturday, at least, there were no yellow flags. That’s good. But more importantly, there were no red flags regarding Apple’s readiness either.