Eli Apple Fills a Much-Needed Void on the Panthers' Defense
Teams entered unknown waters heading into the 2020 NFL offseason amid the COVID-19 pandemic as operating free agency remotely presented an array of problems in the process of trying to ink new deals. Teams are unable to meet with players in-person along with the complexity of physicals making free agency increasingly difficult for both parties. Eli Apple was one of several free agents this offseason to have a deal fall though after he initially agreed to a one-year deal with the Las Vegas Raiders when free agency opened on March 18. He even posted on Instagram that he was “excited to start a new journey as a Raider.”
The Panthers were able to pounce on the opportunity, signing Eli Apple to a one-year, $3 million deal Thursday evening, per NFL Network's Ian Rapoport.
Signing Apple helps bolster a weak and inexperienced Panthers’ secondary that was in dire need of cornerback help. Adding a veteran defensive back was a major point of emphasis for Carolina following the NFL Draft. General manager Marty Hurney appeared on WFNZ Sports Radio in Charlotte this past Wednesday and said that the Panthers were looking to add a veteran to the team’s secondary to work alongside and allow their young talent to continue developing.
Prior to signing Apple, Carolina’s secondary included just one player with at least three years of NFL experience. After losing James Bradberry to the Giants in free agency, the team was left with a massive void at the corner position. Alongside Donte Jackson - who has started 26 games in two years - the team was looking to rely on 2017 fifth-rounder Corn Elder, undrafted second-year man Cole Luke, and a pair of day three rookies from this past April’s draft in Troy Pride Jr. and Stanley Thomas-Oliver. None of the aforementioned corners had started a single NFL game, while two of them would have to see first-team reps in nickel formations on defense in 2020. Thus, the signing of Eli Apple was unequivocally necessary for the Panthers.
Apple will be entering his fifth season in 2020, but the Ohio State product is still quite young, turning just 25 this coming August. The Panthers get a young corner who has the experience Carolina lacks while simultaneously possessing untapped potential.
Since being drafted in 2016, he has started 48 of his 55 career regular seasons games along with three postseason starts. Apple was traded from the New York Giants to New Orleans midway through the 2018 season to start for the NFC contending Saints. Over his past two seasons with New Orleans, Apple totaled 110 tackles, 13 passes defensed, and two interceptions.
Apple is a surely starting-caliber cornerback in the NFL but he still has plenty of room to grow both on and off the field, and likely the reason behind Saints declined his fifth-year option - not having the time or patience that would allow Apple to develop at a healthy rate. According to PFF, he had the worst completion percentage allowed of his career in 2019, surrendering 43 receptions on 68 targets (63.2%). Additionally, he led the Saints with 11 penalties last season and was called for 10 penalties with the team in 2018 (after being traded to the team in week 8). Apple led New Orleans’ defense with 11 pass interference calls over that span.
Carolina is a picture perfect situation for Apple to polish his skills and tweak some bad habits in coverage that has resulted in an influx of penalties. He will not be faced with the pressure to win at a high-level week after week as he was with the NFC contending Saints. With Phil Snow and this young Panthers defense, he will receive quality first-team reps while having more comfort knowing his margin for error is much greater with Carolina as the team has the long view in mind - not looking to win immediately, but build a championship contender from the ground up.
While Eli Apple ended his time with the Saints at a low point, he can look to have a clean slate with Carolina and completely re-invent himself, eventually looking to silence the critics who have grilled him for his inconsistency. He has proven to be capable in man coverage and slotting him in the starting cornerback spot alongside Donte Jackson allows several other young Panthers to play in more natural roles, especially at the start of their careers.
The team used all seven of their picks on defensive players in April’s draft, drafting defensive backs Jeremy Chinn, Kenny Robinson Jr., Troy Pride Jr. While Pride Jr. played cornerback at Notre Dame, his prime fit in an NFL defense will almost certainly be at nickel, especially at the beginning of his career. Before the Apple signing, Pride Jr. may have been forced into a role he was not equipped for and now will be able to step back and properly progress, getting his share of opportunities at nickel as Phil Snow sees fit. The same goes for safety’s Robinson Jr. and Chinn who will additionally get first-team reps in nickel packages as Juston Burris and Tre Boston will man the starting safety positions.
Marty Hurney knew the Panthers needed stability and a veteran presence at corner, and signing Eli Apple to a low-risk, one-year deal was a no-brainer in their minds, giving the Panthers some much-needed depth in the secondary. The 24-year-old Apple possesses untapped potential which fits perfectly into what the Panthers are looking to accomplish in 2020 and beyond.
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