New York Giants
Inside Slant | Notes, Quotes | Strategy and Personnel |
Giants first-round pick Eli Apple couldn't believe his eyes when he saw the unfamiliar phone number with the 201 area code pop up on his caller ID.
"When I saw (the Giants) calling me and it was a New Jersey number, it looked kind of familiar," Apple said via conference call with the Giants' media shortly after he was chosen as the No. 10 overall pick in the draft.
"I didn't know if I had to pick it up. I was like, 'Oh my goodness, this is probably one my friends trying to prank call me.' My mom was like, 'Yeah, don't pick it up.'"
It's easy to understand Apple's apprehension. The Giants, he said, had only met with him once, at the Combine back in February. In addition, virtually no draft analysts had Apple linked to the Giants, certainly not in the first round.
"I didn't know where I was going to go, honestly," he said. "You hear a lot of things. I was just playing it by ear, just expecting everything."
Fortunately for Apple, he did decide to pick up the call, a call that has changed his life as the Voorhees, N.J. resident is heading up the New Jersey Turnpike to play for one of the NFL's most storied franchises.
"I'm very confident," Apple said of his future. "I talked to the defensive coordinator (Steve Spagnuolo) and a couple of the other guys as well on the phone. They're just very excited to have me come, and I am as well."
With the Giants having an estimated $16 million tied up in projected starting corners Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Janoris Jenkins for this season, the selection of Apple at No. 10 did raise a few eyebrows regarding whether he would be an every-down player who could help the Giants right away.
Head coach Ben McAdoo believes that Apple can.
"He can play in a variety of roles for us," McAdoo said without going into any detail on what those role might be. "We will take a look at him everywhere and we are not going to pencil him into any role right now. We are going to get him in here, get a feel for his skill set."
Apple, who has limited experience in the slot he said he only played there when tracking the opposition's No. 1 receiver is willing to play where ever he is needed.
"As long as I'm out there on the field playing man or playing anything just playing corner, playing football I'm cool," he said.
One thing he is not cool with, however, is his father's allegiance to the Eagles, a Giants' division rival.
"My dad was an Eagles fan, he still is a little bit, but he's not going to be for too long," he joked.
Apple, who in 2012 changed his last name from Woodard to Apple, his step-father's surname, believes that although he only had two years in the Buckeyes program, the experience he gained paying against the Big-10 receivers will help him as he transitions to face some "giants" in the NFL, particularly in the NFC East.
"That definitely will prepare me a lot, just going against great guys, especially in practice as well, like Michael Thomas," he said. "A lot of the guys in the Big Ten, they're physical and that's how the receivers in the NFC East are. I think I'll be ready."
Coming into this year's draft, the general consensus, at least on the outside, was that the Giants had to come away with starters with their first three picks.
Instead, the Giants' draft took a little bit different turn, particularly with the first two selections involving cornerbacks Eli Apple in the first round and receiver Sterling Shepard.
While there is still a matter of competing to find their niches on the team, both of those young talents are not expected to come in as starters or even at the top of their respective position's depth chart.
Instead, Apple projects to be a part of the team's nickel package, whether he actually plays in the slot or replaces Janoris Jenkins on the outside, the latter moving down to the slot.
Shepard also probably figures to start his NFL odyssey in the slot, where according to Pro Football Focus, he spent 68.9 percent of his snaps in 2015, where he recorded 1,015 yards and six touchdowns from that spot.
Those stats should serve the Giants well if the NFL's trend involving the nickel increases. According to Pro Football Focus, the use of the nickel defense has increased from 43.4 percent in 2008 to 63.4 percent in 2015, meaning that in addition to playing five or more defensive backs, teams are also fielding three or more receivers.
"It's basketball on grass," said Giants vice president of player evaluation Marc Ross of the team's first two picks. "Guys throw the ball. You need athletes getting in space. You still need to block. You've got to protect. But the more athletes you have out there, the better. It's not ground and pound anymore. We throw the ball and a lot of teams do that."
Of course, it helps if the offensive and defensive lines are stacked well enough to do their jobs. The Giants spent over $200 million to upgrade their defensive line in free agency, adding defensive end Olivier Vernon and defensive tackle Damon Harrison, but have thus far not done much to address the right side of their offensive line after releasing starting right guard Geoff Schwartz and tackle Will Beatty.
"We're always looking for value and need," said general manager Jerry Reese. "We're always trying to couple those two things together. We try our best to get that."
Shepard, a receiver out of Oklahoma, is a rare bird in today's draft scene.
Why? Whereas more and more underclassmen are entering the draft in order to optimize their earning potential, Shepard instead took advantage of his full college eligibility and made sure to get his degree in Arts and Sciences.
"That's one of the things I've always wanted to accomplish since I was a little kid, is graduating from Oklahoma, so I was able to accomplish that," Shepard said of his decision to complete college before entering the draft.
The other benefit of sticking with school?
"I got to mature just as a young man. As a player, I got to get bigger and stronger and faster. Coach Smitty (Jerry Schmidt) does a great job with the weight program and the conditioning, so I just developed."
The Giants are looking forward to seeing Shepard continue his development both on and off the field starting this season. The 23-year-old son of the late Derrick Shepard, who played with Washington, New Orleans and Dallas, revealed that he had little contact with the Giants leading up to the draft, but that now he was a member of the organization, he was looking forward to contributing to a receivers mix that includes Odell Beckham Jr. and Victor Cruz, two guys whose film Shepard is very familiar with.
"I mean that's one of the guys I look at," Shepard said of Beckham. "I look at his game every week and I try to pattern my game after him. I was excited to be able to get drafted by the New York Giants and be able to play alongside him, as well as Victor Cruz; another guy that I look at, too."
The question for Shepard will be where he fits in. At just 5-foot-10, his size screams "slot receiver," which, per College Football Focus, Shepard filled on 68.9 percent of his snaps in 2015 while generating
1,015 yards and six touchdowns from that spot.
While Shepard is open to playing whatever role his coaches need him to, he also doesn't want to be pigeon-holed into just the slot.
"Honestly, I play so big, I don't limit myself to just the inside," he said. "A lot of people think that that's all I can do is play inside just because of my size, but I think guys like Odell and Victor have proven that that's not the case. I'm definitely one of those guys that can be bounced around and move all around."
Because of the knock against him and his size, Shepard plans to use that as motivation in his NFL career.
"Yeah, man. I listen to it and I take it in and move on because I know what I can do. Just gives me a little bit more fire."
That's exactly what the Giants are looking for from their receivers not named Odell Beckham.
Despite a plethora of candidates vying for their starting free safety position, the Giants added another face to the mix in Boise State's Darian Thompson.
Outside of strong safety Landon Collins, a second-round pick last year, Thompson, chosen in the third round, becomes the highest draft pick among a group that includes fifth-rounders Cooper Taylor, Nat Berhe and Mykkele Thompson; and sixth-rounder Bennett Jackson.
"We have a nice mix of guys who all have something different," said Marc Ross, the Giants' vice president of player evaluation. "Nat's a box guy and real competitive. Mykkele's a free-range guy. (Darian Thompson) is a free safety who can also play strong. He has good ball skills, feel for the game, competitiveness and size."
"We think he's a free safety," added general manager Jerry Reese. "He makes the calls back there for his team, he's a ball hawk back there. We think he's going to create a lot of competition in the secondary at that safety position."
In four seasons with the Broncos, Thompson recorded 19 interceptions, including at least five per year over the last two seasons. He was named a Jim Thorpe Award semifinalist in 2015, and is a two-time All-Mountain West first-team honoree (2014-2015).
"I'm an extremely smart football player," Thompson said of what sets him apart from other candidates. "I know how to study film and diagnose plays and put myself in the right spot in order to make plays and make turnovers. I think that's what I do best. I have a knack for the football, and I feel like an interception is just as much as a touchdown, so that's what I'm going after."
He is also versatile, even playing a pseudo linebacker role, which is fine with Thompson if that continues with the Giants.
"I honestly just like being out there on the field, being able to compete and have fun with the game that I love," he said. "So there's no one thing that I liked over another, just being out there is perfectly fine with me."
He is also perfectly fine with having to compete for a starting job, which only adds more fuel to the fire burning within.
He added, "When I get in there, have my best foot forward and just continue to work. I believe I have a great work ethic and nothing's going to change from that, so whatever happens when I get there, it just happens. I'm excited; I'm going to give it all I have and see what happens when I get out there."
The Giants concluded their 2016 draft selection process going six rounds without adding an offensive or defensive lineman for the first time in franchise history.
"Interesting," said general manager Jerry Reese, who seemed unfazed when he was advised of his historic draft.
"We drafted the best players available for us. We have some offensive linemen and we have some defensive linemen. We'll continue to try to improve everywhere on the roster, including the offensive and defensive lines."
Despite Reese's dismissal of the historic accomplishment, the lack of any big bodies up front on the offensive line is surprising considering that the right side of New York's offensive line is still far from being settled and that the quality of the depth at offensive tackle in particular is thin.
"That's probably pretty unique," head coach Ben McAdoo admitted. "The last thing you want to do is reach for a guy. It just so happens that's how it went this year."
"We weren't going to force anything," added Ross. "You want big bodies, but you want the right big bodies. You just can't go into it and say, 'Well we want an offensive lineman,' and throw somebody out there.
"We spent a lot of money in the offseason on the D-line, we have some high draft picks spent on the O-line so we have some good players there right now and we weren't going to force the issue," he added.
While Ross admitted that they had some discussions on some offensive linemen, those prospects weren't ranked as high as other prospects on the Giants' board, and they decided to stick with their board.
The Giants' brass were quick to remind everyone that they still had work to do on the roster, starting with the mad post-draft scramble to sign premium free agents.
Ross, who estimated that the Giants will sign between 12-15 undrafted free agents to help fill out their training camp roster this year, said the team tries to stick to its board once the draft ends, but notes that it's a tough task given the mad scramble that ensues after the draft ends.
"This is the time when you prioritize and fill in any positions of need," he said of the Giants' post-draft process. Stack 'em out and go out and get him."
Those reassurances did little to assuage the concerns of the Giants' fans who look at an offensive line that is still missing two starters on the right side.
"The story is yet to be written on the right side of the offensive line," said McAdoo. "We're just starting the 2016 offseason. We're going to look at every possible combination, give guys a chance to compete, and see where it goes from there. It's still early."
So does that mean they will be adding somebody?
"If the right somebody shows up," he said with a smile.