NEW ORLEANS — He did not mean to say it exactly the way it came out, but it sounded so good, so perfect that Eli Apple might as well have planned each syllable and every word.
No, he revealed, he was not “really shocked’’ when the Giants traded him on Oct. 23, forsaking one of their former first-round picks, giving up on the 10th-overall selection in the 2016 NFL Draft at the tender age of 23. Teams usually hang onto their own players with such pedigree, but the Giants have a new front office and coaching staff and one day after a “Monday Night Football” loss to the Falcons, the Giants sank to 1-6 and shipped Apple to the Saints.
“I was hearing a lot of rumors leading up to it,” Apple said Sunday night. “I’m super happy to be here now and be in the position I’m in now. I’m just super blessed.’’
He did not intentionally drop “super” twice in the same sentence but it makes sense it was on his mind. Apple went from the hell that was the Giants’ season to the heaven that he is experiencing in a new, exciting city with a team that is one game away from a trip to Atlanta for Super Bowl LIII.
Apple was part of a defense that was scorched early by the Eagles in an NFC divisional playoff game that was going all wrong for the home team inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, trailing 14-0 and looking as if it might get pile-driven by this sudden Eagles winter surge. Apple was also part of a defense that hung in, hung tough and completely dominated the final three quarters, allowing Drew Brees and receiver Michael Thomas to get in gear for a difficult but decisive 20-14 victory to set up an NFC Championship game meeting with the Rams.
“It’s amazing,” Apple said. “It’s a great feeling right now.”
Apple was not the starting cornerback who saved the day. The Saints were down by 14 points and the Eagles were at midfield and looking for more when Nick Foles looked deep for Zach Ertz, his prolific tight end, but instead found the hands of Marshon Lattimore, who leaped in front of the 6-foot-5 Ertz and came away with an interception that finally gave the Saints something to feel good about.
“Yeah, you felt it a little bit,” Eagles coach Doug Pederson said of the momentum swing.
Brees got the ball, got the Saints in the end zone and order was restored.
“He got his head around perfectly, high-pointed the ball and just made a beautiful play,” Apple said. “That’s just a little Buckeyes swag.’’
If this works out for Apple, the Saints will be thrilled they gave up a fourth-round pick this year and a seventh-rounder in 2020 to bring him to the Big Easy. This is probably the best spot for Apple to land. Lattimore is one of four former Buckeyes in the defensive backfield. In addition, Thomas and Ted Ginn Jr. played at Ohio State.
Apple was young and very immature when he arrived at the Giants’ doorstep, not ready to work in a locker room filled with grown men. He needed a change. The Giants could have sent him anywhere in the league. They sent him to the most nurturing environment Apple could have hoped for, and it does not hurt that the Saints most often rack up points and give their defense plenty of cushion. With the Giants, that cushion was often as thin and uncomfortable as a 20-year old sofa.
This feels like a new home for Apple.
“Yeah, I feel I’ve really been playing my best ball as of late,’’ he said. “I think they sky’s the limit.
“It’s just a blessing to be here, a lot of friends and people I know. Ain’t nothing like playing with your brothers and people you came up with and grinded with for so long, like in college. Coming over here and feeling the family love I felt here from Day 1, it was amazing.’’
These are not the sentiments Apple left behind.
“Just the energy here is way different,’’ said Apple, who never openly criticized the Giants. “Of course with winning and all, that has a lot to do with it. Everybody is super excited to come to work every day.’’
Apple joined in the fun on a defense that allowed 150 yards in the first quarter and a total of 97 yards in the final three quarters, shutting out the Eagles for the final 49 minutes. Apple in the fourth quarter batted away a pass intended for Golden Tate and then watched Lattimore come up with the clinching play with his second interception of the game, this time off a deflection, as Foles hit Alshon Jeffery in the hands but the ball sailed to the 22-year old cornerback with 1:52 remaining, signaling the start of a celebration and moving the Saints one game away from the Super Bowl.
“Got to go get it,’’ Apple said. “Got to prepare even harder this week. The Rams are definitely going to be a great challenge.’’
The Giants have been done for weeks. Apple is not done, yet.