Former Bengals cornerback Eli Apple‘s long wait on the free agent market has come to an end. Days after star cornerback acquisition Jalen Ramsey underwent surgery for a knee injury, the Dolphins have reached out for veteran starting experience, signing Apple to a one-year deal, according to Tom Pelissero of NFL Network.
Miami lost Ramsey this week to a knee injury that required a full meniscus repair. It was originally reported that Ramsey may just miss the start of the season, but more recent reports have delineated a timeline that doesn’t see Ramsey return until December. Ramsey was obviously a big part of the team’s plan in the secondary moving forward. The Dolphins immediately started looking for options to attempt to negate his absence, also working out veteran cornerback Fabian Moreau and Anthony Averett before ultimately signing Apple.
It looked like a starting duo of Ramsey and Xavien Howard would shape up to be one of the league’s best, with strong young talent like Kader Kohou, Keion Crossen, and rookie second-round pick Cam Smith rotating in. New defensive coordinator Vic Fangio also had plans of working Ramsey at nickel more often, based on his recent success in that role with the Rams. In this situation, Kohou, Crossen, Smith, or Nik Needham would come on when the team needed extra defensive backs on the field and play on the outside while Ramsey shifted in. Apple’s consistent presence on the outside changes that plan.
First, let’s start with what Apple does bring to the table. A former first-round selection taken five picks after Ramsey in 2016, Apple has been a consistent starter over his career, starting 78 of the 88 games he’s appeared in. He’s struggled with injuries in the past, having never played every game of a given season, but in every season but two, he’s been available for at least 14 games. Not only does he have starting experience, but he’s got playoff experience, as well.
With that being said, Apple has never been considered a top player at the position. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Apple has never ranked higher than 61st in the league. Last year, the site credited Apple with allowing a 99.8 passer rating in his coverage area. So, while Apple provides them with the starting experience, Miami may be hoping that they will still get some of their best play out of their incumbent corners.
Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald suggests that Apple’s experience will make him a top candidate to start outside opposite Howard. Apple’s main competition should be Kohou, who started 13 games as an undrafted rookie last year out of Texas A&M-Commerce. Jackson foresees a situation in which Kohou could take the role that Fangio envisioned for Ramsey, starting on the outside then shifting in to the slot when the team needs three cornerbacks on the field. If Apple can earn the starting spot on the outside, though, Kohou would become the immediate primary nickel cornerback.
Past that, much of the plan remains the same. A healthy Needham becomes a strong rotational piece as Crossen and Smith continue to develop in the early years of their careers. Thanks to the injuries that forced Kohou and Crossen into starting time last year, the Dolphins have a relatively deep group at cornerback that should absorb the temporary loss of Ramsey well. That’s not to say that this group won’t be significantly better once Ramsey returns, but while he’s gone, the addition of Apple combined with the capabilities of Miami’s younger defensive backs should hold the team over until Ramsey’s back.