By Ernie Palladino
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Eli Apple and Muhammad Wilkerson have revealed their true selves to the Giants and Jets, respectively, this season.
Unfortunately in both cases, they haven’t exactly resembled former first-round picks. And therein lies the rub.
It’s one thing to underachieve. There has been no shortage of that on any unit during these two lost seasons. But there is quite a difference between trying and playing poorly and what the Giants’ second-year cornerback and the Jets’ seventh-year pass rusher have done. Their own actions on and off the field have rendered each man useless.
Not only that, but they are now eminently expendable at season’s end.
Keep in mind, things do happen with first-round picks. Half of them never make an impact on their teams. But that’s generally just because the talents that enticed general managers to make them the highest-paid rookies on the squad don’t translate to NFL-caliber play. They try and try, but in the end they just don’t have what it takes to stick.
No tragedy. Just a bad guess. At least the effort was there.
The Giants and Jets have seen neither sufficient effort, cooperation, nor leadership from Apple or Wilkerson. They have instead offered laziness and pushback to authority.
Apple had to sit in perfect physical health inactive for four games before Steve Spagnuolo reactivated him Sunday against Philadelphia. Granted, one of those was because his mom was going into brain surgery. But that doesn’t explain the “ole” number he pulled on Robert Woods as the Rams’ receiver flew past him on third-and-33, or the near-walkouts he staged when the coaches called him on it and other whiffs in the ensuing film session.
Nor does it the nonsensical, celebratory tweet Apple sent Cowboys running back and ex-Ohio State teammate Rod Smith during his two-touchdown performance last week. That, according to reports, cost him a few bucks in fines.
This is not the kind of behavior one expects from a first-round pick. Those guys are seen as future leaders, not head cases.
In truth, Apple has never looked like a first-round talent. From the time he entered the league last season, he has missed assignments, missed tackles, and generally looked more like a backup than future starter. But if he wasn’t instrumental, he was at least functional. He showed that much Sunday on a nice second-quarter hit on Eagles running back Corey Clement.
But the problems overshadow that. He’s become a problem — a big one — and if kept around, short of an adjusted attitude, he could endanger the well-being of future locker rooms.
Wilkerson is a different story. He could have served as a real leader on the Jets’ front line. For a while, he was, especially when he dropped quarterbacks 12 times in 2015.
But then came the big contract with its $36.75 million of immediate, guaranteed money, and Wilkerson went off into hiding in plain sight.
Bad enough that he has only recorded eight sacks since signing the five-year, $86 million deal in July of 2016. But his habitual tardiness or outright absences at meetings caused Todd Bowles to leave him home from Sunday’s game in New Orleans.
He acts like he doesn’t care, and that has made him as big a problem as former teammate Sheldon Richardson was last year. The Jets solved that problem this year by shipping Richardson to Seattle for productive wide receiver Jermaine Kearse.
They could solve the Wilkerson problem by leaving him inactive the rest of the season, cut him, and save $11 million on the salary cap. A better solution involves trading him, but it’s unlikely anyone would assume the $47 million owed him over the next three years.
So Wilkerson has probably played his last down with the Jets. Apple may stick around to collect the rest of his $15 million rookie contract, but he’ll have an awful lot of maturing to do.
Certainly, if his behavior continues on its current trend, the Giants may in short time look to copy the Jets in jettisoning last year’s 10th overall pick.
They’re not the kind of problem players one expects from first-rounders.
Better off without them.
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