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Bengals’ draft class likely ends any chance of an Eli Apple return

Eli Apple played his best football in Cincinnati. Now he’s likely going to have to find work elsewhere.

NFL: AFC Championship-Cincinnati Bengals at Kansas City Chiefs Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

When Eli Apple was signed by the Bengals before the 2021 NFL season, many fans groaned.

Apple, a first-round pick out of Ohio State by the New York Giants in the 2016 NFL draft, had been labeled a bust as he massively underachieved with the Giants, Saints, and Panthers.

He ended up starting every game of the 2021 season and helped the Bengals not only win their first playoff game in over 30 years, but they went to the Super Bowl.

Apple re-signed before the 2022 season and again started every game, this time helping the Bengals get to the AFC Championship.

In his time in Cincinnati, Apple became a polarizing figure for the Bengals. Not only did he play the best football of his career, but his trolling on Twitter was legendary.

For fans of other teams, Apple became one of the most hated figures in football. Bengals fans either loved him or hated him. There was no in-between, but many thought the Bengals would bring him back if the price was right, considering the team’s lack of depth at corner.

Apple had an up-and-down season, finishing with an overall coverage grade of 55.0, per PFF. He had some really bad games, but he had really good ones too. He gave up 53 receptions on 91 targets for four touchdowns. He didn’t have any interceptions, but he broke up nine passes.

When it comes to his on-field play, he’s possibly best known for one play in the AFC Championship game on January 30, 2022. The Chiefs were leading by a score of 21-10 and were knocking on the door of another touchdown right before halftime.

Patrick Mahomes found Tyreek Hill in the flat, and Apple was the only man between Hill and the end zone. Here’s the play.

If Apple doesn’t make that tackle on one of the fastest players in the NFL, the Bengals don’t go to the Super Bowl. He made plays like that often, but seemingly, just as often, he blew coverage or got burnt. Most people thought the Bengals would re-sign Apple, at least for the depth or to be a backup to Awuzie or Taylor-Britt, but now that the draft is over, it’s clear the Bengals plan to move ahead without Apple on the roster.

Before any draft picks or free agent signings, the Bengals’ depth chart at the cornerback position was pretty bare. There was Chidobe Awuzie, who is entering the last year of his deal and is coming off a season-ending injury, Cam Taylor-Britt and Mike Hilton, as well as a handful of players with little to no experience. Now, it’s pretty full and likely doesn’t have room for another player unless there’s a camp injury.

The Bengals selected not one but two cornerbacks in the 2023 NFL Draft. They selected DJ Turner II out of Michigan in the second round with the No. 60 overall pick, then grabbed D.J. Ivey out of Miami (Florida) with the No. 246 pick in the seventh round.

Before the draft, they also signed former Raiders cornerback Sidney Jones IV to a one-year deal. They also re-signed Jalen Davis to a two-year deal. Turner and Jones have the best chances to start as outside corners if there’s an injury or if there’s a setback on Awuzie’s knee rehabilitation. Davis is Hilton’s backup in the slot.

Throughout his career, Apple has started in 71 games, made 307 tackles, intercepted five passes, knocked down another 45, forced three fumbles, and recovered seven fumbles.

Over his career, he’s had an average PFF coverage grade of 59.2 and an average overall grade of 60.5.

If this is the end for Apple in Cincinnati, and it looks like it is, I wish him the best in his career in the NFL. Also, if and when he does play against the Bengals in the future, I hope he’s nicer to them on Twitter than he was with other teams.