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What should the Saints do with Eli Apple?

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After an up-and-down season, Eli Apple’s future with the Saints hangs in the balance heading into free agency.

NFL: San Francisco 49ers at New Orleans Saints Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

About eight weeks into the 2019 season, the question “Should the Saints re-sign Eli Apple?” would’ve likely resulted in more yea’s than nay’s from Saints fans.

So much can change in another half of a season.

After ending the year on a sour note, including poor performances combined with a late-season injury, Apple’s future with New Orleans is pretty clouded at the moment.

At the beginning of the year, the Saints decided to decline the fifth-year option for over $13 million on his rookie contract, leaving him in a contract year.

The thought process at the time was seemingly to let him prove himself and possibly offer him a more long-term contract in 2020.

Inconsistency and a lack of confidence overshadowed some of the positives from the season, but did the positives out-weigh the negatives?

The argument for bringing him back

I know Saints fans aren’t the highest on Apple as of now, after his woeful performances against the 49ers and Falcons late in the season, but let’s not completely succumb to recency bias. He had some good stretches of play this year.

From Weeks 1-12, Apple was targeted 46 times and only allowed 25 catches, for a 54.3 percent catch rate allowed. That was a top 20 figure among corners who were targeted at least 30 times in that span.

His three lone pass break-ups in 2019 were in that 12-game stretch, as well.

He showed that he’s capable of playing at, not a great, but an above-average level in these 12 games. And an above-average second corner is a luxury, to say the least.

When Marshon Lattimore missed Weeks 11 and 12 with an injury, Apple stepped into the no. 1 corner role and played admirably.

In those two games combined, he was targeted 10 times and only allowed three catches. He allowed 9.3 yards per catch, zero touchdowns, a 39.6 passer rating when targeted and he broke up two passes.

An undervalued aspect of Apple’s game is his strong tackling. He only missed three tackles in coverage this season, which was one of the lowest marks among corners in the league.

At a position as valuable as corner, it’s never a bad idea to keep depth there with guys who have shown the ability to play at a starting-caliber level.

With the way the season ended, I can’t see Apple asking for that large of a contract. Not only that, but teams may consider his drama-filled past with the Giants a red flag, despite having a rather smooth tenure in New Orleans.

Combined with the fact that his replacement (Janoris Jenkins) will be 31 next season and his cap hit will be $11.25 million, keeping Apple is not out completely of the question.

The argument against bringing him back

Despite starting the season off well, Apple put some downright bad film on display in the second half of the season.

His Week 10-16 numbers aren’t that terrible as a whole, but it seemed as if he was getting worse as the season went along, which is discouraging.

In Weeks 10-16, he was targeted 40 times and allowed 27 catches, for a 67.5 percent catch rate. He also committed six penalties, which was tied for the fourth-most among corners in that span.

But if you shorten the sample size to Weeks 13-16, it gets worse.

He allowed an 81.8 percent catch rate on 22 targets and allowed a passer rating of 113.3 when targeted in this span, while committing four penalties (second-most).

While I would usually recommend valuing the larger sample size in most cases, this split displays the avalanche effect of Apple’s play in 2019, getting progressively worse as the season went on.

Another area of concern for Apple in these seven games was the amount of yards after catch receivers were racking up against him. Of the 174 yards after the catch he allowed on the season, 119 of them came in the latter half of the year.

His worst game in this aspect came against the Niners, when he allowed 46 yards after the catch.

Apple’s poor coverage numbers in the second half of the season are particularly discouraging considering the amount of help he’s gotten from opposing quarterbacks. Apple had 20 targets thrown his way that ended in an incompletion due to a receiver drop or opposing quarterback error. That was tied for the 15th most incompletions not forced by the corner targeted in the league.

The thing about Apple is that his highs are solid-to-good, but his lows are very low. You could say this about a ton of corners, but for a guy fighting for a second contract, you’d rather see more high-end stuff to neutralize the low-end.

My two cents

If I were in the Saints’ front office, I’d set a low price for Apple and not budge. If he doesn’t quite get the suitors he expects in free agency, maybe he’ll settle.

Anywhere in the range of $4-6 million per year would be what I think Mickey Loomis and Sean Payton should offer Apple, with not much of an annual commitment. This send the message that they want him back, but aren’t going to splurge by any means.

Think of it like a prove-it deal. If he’s not interested, let him walk.

While he plays an extremely high-valued position, he didn’t produce enough high-end performances to justify looking past the poor stretches he put on tape.

Whether it’s through free agency or the draft, the Saints can most likely match Apple’s production for cheaper, and with less commitment, than he’ll probably require.