METAIRIE, La. -- The most spirited moment from the New Orleans Saints' OTA practices that were open to the media over the past three weeks came courtesy of receiver Michael Thomas and cornerback Eli Apple.
Apple broke up a pass intended for Thomas during a particularly intense set of full-team drills. Then quarterback Drew Brees went right back to Thomas on a similar play. This time, Thomas made the catch with Apple draped all over him -- then Thomas promptly threw the ball at his former Ohio State teammate.
“We love it,” Apple said of the competition, before insisting that Thomas didn’t get both feet in bounds on the second play, either.
“He got one foot in, though, so it would’ve been good in college,” Apple said with a smile.
One of the things that stood out most about the exchange is how much it feels like Apple belongs -- both in his role as New Orleans’ No. 2 starting cornerback and with this team in general.
It wasn’t that long ago when the former first-round pick arrived with some baggage and question marks about how he’d fit in the locker room after the Saints acquired him from the New York Giants in a midseason trade. (The Saints sent a 2019 fourth-rounder and a 2020 seventh-rounder to New York.)
At the end of the 2017 season, Apple was suspended for arguing with a coach in New York and was called a “cancer” by former Giants teammate Landon Collins. Things got better -- but it goes without saying that Apple was in a much more tumultuous situation at this time last year.
Flash forward to today, and it feels like Apple is right at home.
He shares his corner of the Saints’ locker room with two other former Ohio State teammates -- cornerback Marshon Lattimore and safety Vonn Bell. And the entire secondary shares a close bond on and off the field, where they often train together and hang out together.
“It was a blessing coming here,” Apple said. “Knowing so many guys already, we just clicked instantly. From our days back, of course. And then other guys that I didn’t really know well, we’re also clicking and gaining a relationship, going out and learning how the guys are off the field.
“It’s all been good, just getting better. Just trying to mature more as a player, as a person. Especially in the offseason, you kind of get a chance to unwind and look back at things you’ve done well, you’ve done bad. Just trying to just overall get better as a person and as a player too.”
From all indications, Apple is ascending in both areas. When Bell and Lattimore talked about him, they repeatedly used the word “comfortable” to describe him both on and off the field.
“It’s very important just coming from his situation and just knowing him previously before through college -- just like a home setting touches him more,” Bell said. “That’s what we have here, and that’s why he’s flourishing so much.”
Apple still needs more development to become a consistent high-level starter in the NFL. It was no surprise that the Saints didn’t pick up his fifth-year option for 2020, which would have cost more than $13 million since he was the 10th overall pick in the 2016 draft.
But Apple did show improvement throughout last season, in both New York and New Orleans. And he is still just 23 years old until August.
“Look, we’re excited about him,” Saints defensive coordinator Dennis Allen said. “I thought he did a lot of good things last year. There’s still some things he needs to improve on. But even out here in these first couple of weeks, I’ve seen some improvement with the player.
“I’ve seen a better sense of confidence in terms of what we’re doing -- what he’s being asked to do. So he’s able to play a little bit more freely now than he was really at any point last year. [OTAs and training camp are] important to the development of a player. So for him to do what he did coming in midyear last year, I thought was pretty impressive.”
Apple (6-foot-1, 203 pounds) played nearly every snap during his 12 games with the Saints, including the playoffs. He had two interceptions and 10 passes defensed in those games -- although he also was flagged for 10 pass interference or defensive holding penalties.
Apple battled some inconsistency throughout his time in New Orleans, mixing in some great games (at Tampa Bay and Carolina in Weeks 14 and 15) with some rougher ones (at Dallas in Week 13, vs. Pittsburgh and Carolina in Weeks 16 and 17).
But his arrival was a big part of the defense’s overall improvement down the stretch. Through Week 6 last season, the Saints allowed an average of 28 points per game, good for 26th in the NFL. But after Apple's arrival in Week 7, they allowed a more respectable 22 PPG (ranking 14th). The Saints’ defense was particularly stingy in the second half of games. Over their final eight games, teams averaged less than six points per game against them in the second half.
Apple should become more consistent now that he’ll have an entire offseason to really learn the intricacies of the defense.
“It’s been great so far,” Apple said. “The guys have been helping me. Coaches too. And I feel like with a whole offseason behind you -- especially with the playbook, that’s the most important thing … Understanding where your help is, understanding the pressures and knowing where guys are on the field. So just playing faster, that’s what it comes down to.
“I would just say I’m real happy just to be here, just to be with the guys that I’m with and to learn and soak up everything that they know so we can all just continue to strive and get better.”