EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - Just one year ago, Eli Apple was playing well for the Giants and justifying what had previously looked like a reach when he was selected 10th overall in the 2016 draft. He had earned a starting job. He looked like he had a bright future.
Now it's hard to believe he can have any future with the Giants at all.
That's not a guarantee, of course, even after he was suspended on Thursday for what then-interim GM Kevin Abrams called "a pattern of behavior that is conduct detrimental to the team." There are some in the Giants organization who insist that Apple will never wear a Giants uniform again, even though co-owner John Mara said on Friday that "I'd like, at the end of the day, for him to be a part of this team's future."
Ultimately, Mara said, that decision will be made after he has a "discussion" with Gettleman and the next Giants head coach.
So what are the Giants' options they can discuss for the future of the 22-year-old former first-round pick? There are only three …
GIVE HIM A SECOND CHANCE
Maybe Apple was a reach at 10, but his talent was good enough that most considered him a first-rounder in 2016, including some who put him in the Top 15. He's also young and filled with untapped potential, already with 26 games of experience (including 19 as a starter). As huge a headache as he's been this season, teams almost never give up on young talent like that.
Also playing in his favor: He's relatively inexpensive. They owe him only $4,343,710 in guaranteed (maybe) salaries over the next two seasons. And his cap numbers -- $4.1 million in 2018 and $4.8 million in 2019 - aren't horrendous. Cutting him would actually increase his cap hit by at least $2.5 million (unless they try to void his guaranteed money … and see below for more on that). And trading him wouldn't provide any cap relief either, unless they waited until June.
So they could get him help, offer to help him work through his personal issues, and craft a media strategy to tell his story and rebuild his image. It has worked in the past for players who have done far worse things. The toughest sell might be in his own locker room, where Landon Collins called him a "cancer" and other players have privately agreed.
But athletes tend to be forgiving, especially if they think a player can help them. Besides, the Giants know they can't afford to toss away talent after a likely 2-14 season. Also, their locker room will undoubtedly look a lot differently next year.
CUT HIM DURING THE OFFSEASON
This is where it gets interesting, because even if the Giants label Apple a "post-June 1" cut it doesn't make financial sense to do it. They owe him $4.3 million in guaranteed salaries the next two seasons and they're still on the salary cap hook for $4.6 million in pro-rated signing bonus money too. Cutting him would actually add at least $2.5 million to their books as his cap hit would jump from $4.1 million to at least $6.6 million.
Why pay him more, cap wise, while he plays somewhere else?
Unless … It turns out there is language in Apple's contract, according to ESPN, that would allow the Giants to void the remaining guarantees in his deal for, among other things, "conduct detrimental to the team." If the Giants choose to do that - and they're successful - they'd void the $4.3 million in guaranteed salary and they'd only be on the hook for the pro-rated portion of the $9.2 million signing bonus they already paid him - or about $2.3 million per year.
Sorting through the cap gobbledygook, it means that if the Giants void his guaranteed money they could cut him, label him a "post-June 1" cut, and lower his cap hit by about $1.8 million.
The Giants, according to a team source, believe they have the right to void those guarantees in his contract. The NFL Players Association surely wouldn't let that happen without a fight. But if the Giants can stomach the legal brawl, it's certainly an option.
It is more palatable to trade Apple for a variety of reasons. First, the Giants would get something in return - likely no more than a mid-to-late-round draft pick at this point. His value certainly won't be high after his suspension and with a teammate having labeled him "a cancer". Also, if he's traded, his new team would be on the cap-hook for the $4.3 million in guaranteed salaries he's still owed in 2018-19. The Giants would only be on the hook for his pro-rated bonus.
So trading him early in the offseason would only cost the Giants an additional $400,000 against the cap (Apple would still count for $4.6 million in "dead money" on the Giants books). If they waited until June they'd save $1.8 million against the cap, though he'd still count for $2.3 million in dead money next year. Financially that would be worth it to rid themselves of a problem player.
For the Giants, the financial ramifications would be exactly the same even if they are able to void the remaining guarantees in his contract - although if his 2018 and 2019 salaries aren't guaranteed, that certainly would make him more attractive (and valuable) in a trade.
The key to this, of course, would be finding a trading partner. Apple is still a 22-year-old player with talent at a position NFL teams value. And usually when a player has issues with one team, there are other teams willing to take a chance that he'll benefit from a change of scenery.
If there hasn't been a reconciliation or resolution of the Apple mess by the time free agency begins, you can bet there will be trade talks about him during the draft.