Early in the offseason process, it became evident quickly that Ohio State cornerback Eli Apple was going to be one of those natural players to connect with the Pittsburgh Steelers, and we found his name next to the western Pennsylvania team’s with frequency in the early mock drafts.
That seemed to subside during the heart of the draft evaluation process, as more and more people got through players’ tape, and we got through the Combine, Pro Days, pre-draft visits, etc. But in just the last couple of days, we have been seeing his name pop up frequently yet again.
Mike Mayock, for example, published his mock draft yesterday and had the Steelers taking Apple at 25, and doing so over fellow cornerback William Jackson III, whom many have grown to believe over the past couple of months to be a better prospect, and a better fit in Pittsburgh than Apple.
Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette also noted during his chat yesterday that he is hearing that Apple will be the team’s target in the first round, if he is available, and that failing that, they could fall back on Jackson. While the Post-Gazette has gotten its fair share of intel wrong over the years—most recently a February claim that the team was over the cap—there is good reason to take seriously the notion that the Steelers’ interest could be very genuine, to the point that he could be their target, for better or worse.
The starting point is, of course, the fact that he is a Buckeye, and even with former defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau having relocated to Tennessee, the Steelers still have a healthy connection to Ohio State, which is one of the major programs whose defensive system is similar to what they run, making transitions for their players easier, at least theoretically.
The coaching staffs of the two teams have had a strong working relationship over the years, even through regime changes, and it has resulted in the Steelers drafting or acquiring a number of Buckeyes, including two recent first-rounders.
Most notable is Cameron Heyward, of course, a 2011 first-round defensive end who is the leader of the defense. But the Steelers also have two former teammates of Apple’s in 2014 first-round draft pick Ryan Shazier and 2015 fourth-round draft pick Doran Grant, the latter a fellow cornerback.
It’s worth reminding that the Steelers heeded Maurkice Pouncey’s advice when they drafted Marcus Gilbert in the second round in 2011 and Chris Rainey in the fifth round in 2012. You can imagine that they might have sought counsel from Shazier—a high-profile defensive player—and Grant—who worked with Apple in the secondary—about their experiences with him.
Another factor in play is that, while Apple might not seem like the conventional Steelers cornerback, he is more in line with some of the cornerbacks that the team has reportedly also targeted in recent drafts, even to the point of exploring options to trade up.
The Steelers were connected with Justin Gilbert during the 2014 NFL Draft, and were said to want to trade up for him, which obviously never became feasible. Likewise for Trae Waynes during last year’s draft class.
Neither Gilbert nor Waynes would seem to fit the team’s profile, as they are not known to be strong run supporters, adept in zone coverage, or particularly savvy from a football intelligence standpoint. But what is important is that the team had interest in these players, which lends credence to the report that their interest in Apple is indeed very authentic.