Newcomers no more: Eli Apple, Marcus Davenport key to Saints' playoffs

Eli Apple and the New Orleans Saints are the NFC's No. 1 seed in the playoffs and await their divisional round opponent. Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY Sports

METAIRIE, La. -- As the saying goes, defensive end Marcus Davenport is no longer a rookie now that the New Orleans Saints have reached the playoffs.

And by that logic, cornerback Eli Apple is no longer the guy who arrived in a midseason trade and got thrown into the fire.

Both players said this week that they feel more comfortable and confident than they did just two months ago. And both will be key to the Saints' chances of making a Super Bowl run.

"Oh yeah, I'm definitely fully acclimated at this point," Apple said. He added that the transition felt quick after he was traded from the New York Giants to New Orleans in Week 8 -- in part because he had preexisting relationships with current Saints and former Ohio State teammates such as cornerback Marshon Lattimore, safety Vonn Bell and receiver Michael Thomas.

"The communication's been great, and we're definitely building something," Apple said. "And I think the more we're on the field together, the more comfortable we all get just playing together."

Apple, who is only 23 years old and in his third season since he was selected with the 10th pick in the 2016 draft, has played nearly every snap since joining the Saints. And he has experienced plenty of highs and lows along the way.

The long and physical 6-foot-1, 203-pounder was especially good in Weeks 14 and 15 at Tampa Bay and Carolina -- highlighted by his interception in the end zone before halftime against the Panthers. He has two interceptions and nine pass defenses in 10 games played with the Saints.

But Apple had rough games in Week 13 at Dallas, in Week 16 against Pittsburgh and in Week 17 against Carolina. And even though he has played in only 10 games with New Orleans, he leads the Saints for the entire season with 10 penalties (two declined), including seven pass interference calls.

One interesting trend that has emerged with Apple -- for better and for worse -- is that most of his struggles have come early in games. He appears to play more effectively as he makes in-game adjustments.

That has also been true of the Saints' defense as a whole. That unit has allowed fewer than six points per game in the second half over the past eight games.

"I feel like as the game goes on, we can always get better," Apple said. "I just try to learn things and get more comfortable. I think everybody makes great adjustments, and the communication's always great around here. And we just gotta keep it going."

Davenport, meanwhile, said confidence and "not stressing" as much have been the areas in which he has grown the most since the beginning of the season.

Even though he was the 14th pick in the draft and so coveted that the Saints traded away their 2019 first-round pick to move up and get him, Davenport said he has always been a harsh critic of himself in all aspects of life. But he said his teammates and coaches have done a great job of instilling a belief in himself.

"I feel like this has been a total difference [since the beginning of the season], especially with confidence," said Davenport, who has 4.5 sacks in 13 games played. "I feel like my team has built me up, and I feel like I'm finally starting to show it."

Davenport, who made the leap from Texas-San Antonio to the NFL, said the expectations that come with being a first-round pick played a role in that pressure, "but I think it was really the stress I put on myself."

"That's something I've worked on. I'm a critical person. But I've been learning to calm it down and just play," Davenport said. "I was just thinking too much. Sometimes you just gotta remember it's just football."

Getting healthy has also been big for Davenport, who missed three games with a toe injury from Weeks 9 through 11.

The athletic 6-foot-6, 265-pounder has played about 30 snaps per game as a rotational defensive end behind starters Cameron Jordan and Alex Okafor -- primarily as a pass-rusher. In addition to his 4.5 sacks, he has 12 quarterback hits, six tackles for loss and a forced fumble.

"I feel like my peak is still to come," Davenport said.

No better time than the playoffs.