How Eli Apple went from bust to starter and helped the Bengals to the playoffs

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CINCINNATI – Cincinnati Bengals cornerback Eli Apple could be heard before he was seen running toward the visitors’ locker room after a blowout victory over the Baltimore Ravens in October.

At the entrance to Cincinnati’s locker room at M&T Bank Stadium, he peeled around the corner and let loose in a little light trolling.

“Big truss,” Apple said, referring to the raven’s catch-phrase over the years. “Huge truss. Not great, but very astronomical truss. Astronomical.”

After the first of two blowout victories this season over Baltimore, it was a moment of unfiltered joy for someone who experienced a bit of it during one of the most skewed NFL careers of the past decade.

In its fifth year in the league, Apple has its best season to date and has been an important part of the Bengals’ push for their first playoff spot since 2015.

“I want to say I’m definitely having fun,” Apple told ESPN. “I’ve been the healthiest. I’ve been the happiest I’ve been, I feel like for a long time.”

These statements are significant given the many experiences Apple has had since the New York Giants selected him with the 10th overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft.

The short version: He was labeled a locker room as “cancer” by a Giants teammate, and he was traded to the New Orleans Saints after just two and a half seasons in New York. After two seasons in New Orleans, he signed with the Carolina Panthers, where he struggled through injuries in his only year there.

Looking back, Apple admits that he “did not do all right in New York” and lacked the maturity to deal with adversity and prevent adverse events from affecting him.

“I want a good moment, and then something else would happen, it would be a bad moment,” Apple said. “I would not be able to come back as I should.”

After his season with the Panthers, Apple needed a new team and the Bengals needed to strengthen the cornerback depth.

Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo was the Giants’ defensive backs coach at the start of Apple’s final year in New York. In his mind, the talent that made Apple a first-round pick was still evident.

When Bengals starting cornerback Trae Waynes suffered a hamstring injury at the end of the preseason, Apple took over and have not looked back. Through 15 games, his allowed completion percentage as the closest defender in coverage is 4.8% below expectations, the best percentage on the team, according to the NFL Next Gen.

With Waynes now healthy, Apple remains the starter despite Waynes being one of the biggest free agent signings in franchise history. Anarumo credits Apple’s turnaround with the consistency he’s shown. He says Apple does not vary in technology or abuse the defensive playcalls.

“You have nothing to do with Eli,” Anarumo said.

That reliability is further proof of a very different person than the one Anarumo first coached in New York.

Apple is now a strict vegan, meaning his mother, Annie Apple, has been forced to change many of her recipes, including a signature jollof rice. Eli, who grew up with fear of needles, is now undergoing acupuncture as a form of physical rehabilitation. Annie has even once accompanied him to a hot yoga class.

All are examples of Apple’s growth in recent years.

“For most of us, it takes time for us to find the right rhythm, for us to really develop not just our skills and our abilities, but our resilience,” Annie Apple told ESPN. “And I think he’s right on target.”

It still hasn’t always been easy for Apple in Cincinnati. He had low moments early in the season – like a touchdown handed over to Donovan Peoples-Jones in a defeat against Cleveland in Week 9 – which gave rise to some criticism from the fan base. Still, Bengal coach Zac Taylor and his staff supported him.

“It’s one of the hardest positions to play in all of football,” Taylor said last month when asked about the cornerback. “It’s one of my wife’s favorite things to say, and it’s true.

“I’m not posting the position the guys are getting into, but he’s doing a great job. He’s playing with a high degree of confidence and he’s done some really good things for us this year.”

As the Bengals prepare for the Kansas City Chiefs this weekend (Sunday at 1 p.m. ET on CBS), Apple will be a major contributor, with Cincinnati (9-6) needing a win out of the last two games to win the AFC North -title.

Currently, Apple is self-updating and enjoying a tremendous sense of freedom, prompting moments like that after the victory in Baltimore. It’s a reflection of the joy and confidence Apple has with Cincinnati. And it takes a lot to change that.

“You just have to worry about yourself and know that whatever you think about yourself is much more important than anyone else,” Apple said. “As long as you work hard and put that work in, you do not have to worry about anyone else.”


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