I’ll admit, while draft season isn’t my favourite time of the NFL year – combine/pro day overhype and debating every minute aspect of a college kid’s life in the national media for days on end have something to do with it – I am a mock draft addict. Seeing the elaborate and, majority of the time. utterly implausible scenarios which people layout over thirty-two picks is a guilty pleasure of mine. It also gives me a good idea of which prospects and position groups to pay closer attention to from a Chiefs perspective.
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One prospect who has drawn said attention is Ohio State cornerback, Eli Apple. The Chiefs lost a starting corner, have no surefire replacement on the roster, and have a clearly defined defensive system that requires a specific type of player. Those three reasons, one would assume, make Apple and the Chiefs a great match at first glance. However, after watching four of Apple’s games from the past two seasons (h/t DraftBreakdown.com), I believe Dorsey should pass if given the opportunity to call his name on April 28.
A lot of the talk surrounding Apple has a Dontari Poe circa 2012 vibe to it. Poe was considered a tremendous athlete with all the raw physical tools a team could want, but had a steep learning curve ahead of them in the technique department. Switch “Poe” with “Apple” and it fits pretty well. But while a run-stuffing nose tackle can, mostly, get away with a year or two of relying on his physicality, cornerbacks are offered no such leeway. We’ve seen in recent years raw, athletic corners get selected in the first round and struggle mightily (Trae Waynes, Dee Millner, and Dre Kirkpatrick immediately come to mind). Technique is vital for corners, and Apple is more likely to join the above list than one containing the likes of Marcus Peters and Ronald Darby. Let’s jump into exactly why.
Backpedal and Hip Flips
In a man-coverage heavy scheme like Sutton’s, corners have to be comfortable backpedaling and must be able to flip their hips smoothly when transitioning into a sprint. The thing that bothered me most about Apple’s tape was how uncomfortable he looked while backpedaling, and how it often led to rushed hip flips.
Here we have Apple lined up in press-man against Amari Cooper. Now, I know this is a run play, but Apple’s technique here is still very telling – he doesn’t take a full stride backwards before he’s already flipped his hips and back towards the quarterback. For a guy who possesses 4.4 speed, I’d expect to see Apple play the first handful of yards facing the receiver, while also keeping one eye on the backfield.
In the NFL, veteran quarterbacks and wide receivers will take advantage of a corner that is overeager to get out of his backpedal with comebacks and hitch routes all day. That’s not the kind of corner you employ in the Chiefs’ system. Speaking of comeback routes:
The same flaws pointed out above are evident on this reception by Michigan State. Right off the snap, Apple immediately gets out of his backpedal and goes shoulder-to-shoulder with the receiver. When the receiver reaches the top of his route and comes back to the ball, Apple is no position to immediately change of direction. His seeming lack of confidence in his backpedal causes all sorts of problems when asked to play press man, and that’s reason number one I don’t see him in a Chiefs uniform in 2016.
With receivers getting bigger, stronger, and faster, you absolutely want a corner who isn’t afraid to get physical with them. Eli Apple definitely fits the bill there, just as Sean Smith did. But whereas Sean Smith hardly earned pass interference/illegal contact penalties, Apple looks like he is going to earn a bunch when he makes the jump.
We saw a glimpse of it in the Michigan State GIF above, but Apple is frequently in contact with receivers well past the five-yard NFL threshold. These plays happened back-to-back and are a great example of how Apple compensates for his lack of technique with holds and reaches:
Without proper footwork and fluid hips, these obstructions are the kind of thing that show up too frequently in Apple’s tape. And with the NFL’s crusade against any form of wide receiver contact these past couple seasons, Apple has the looks of a DB linesmen will become familiar with quickly.
Plays Like This
Now, I’m not one to make snap judgments on players based on a single play, but with that being said, the play above really stuck out and sold me on the fact Apple doesn’t fit with what the Chiefs are doing. In the National Championship game, backed up in your own redzone, lined up against the number one receiver in the country and your coverage is that blasé? I mean, would Marcus Peters have played it anything like that?
As soon as the ball is snapped, Apple opens himself up and basically begs Cooper to run a dig route. I’d understand if there was a safety or linebacker occupying that are of the field (of course, there’s always the possibility of a blown assignment), but from the looks of it, Cooper was solely the responsibility of Apple. And Apple didn’t even put up a fight.
Like Poe, Apple is coming out of college with all the physical traits you could want, but needs time to translate his raw athleticism into on-field production. With proper coaching, the right system, and managed expectations, Apple could very well become a solid NFL corner. However, cornerback is one of the least forgiving positions in football, and the idea of the Chiefs spending their first round draft pick on a project when the team is in win-now mode seems counter intuitive. That’s why, in a little over two weeks, I’m not expecting Eli Apple to be the name written down on the Chiefs draft card.