The Carolina Panthers are starting over in the secondary this upcoming season, as former No. 1 cornerback James Bradberry left for greener pastures in free agency and veteran Eric Reid was handed his walking papers. First-year head coach Matt Rhule used all seven of his picks in the 2020 NFL Draft on defensive players -- becoming the first team in the common draft era to do so -- and four of those were spent on members of the secondary. Still, after the draft, Rhule signed another cornerback with some experience who may be able to come in and start immediately over these younger players.
Back in May, Carolina agreed to terms with former No. 10 overall pick cornerback Eli Apple, who originally agreed to terms with the Las Vegas Raiders this offseason before the arranged deal fell through. The 25-year-old will be playing for his third team in as many seasons, and has worked hard to get rid of the bust label that has followed him for the majority of his career. After being selected in the first round by the New York Giants, the former Ohio State star struggled to make the transition to the NFL, and was eventually traded to the New Orleans Saints. Interestingly enough, the change of scenery seemed to benefit Apple, and he recorded 58 combined tackles, 13 passes defensed and two interceptions in just 25 total games played. Apple was not re-signed this offseason after suffering an ankle injury, but he's again excited for another change of scenery that may bring forth an even better opportunity.
"I feel like I've seen so much, and I've been through a lot -- more than the normal guy would," Apple said, via the Panthers' official website. "I've been traded, I've been on teams that were really good and teams that were really bad, so I've seen it all. I've seen every side of, I feel like, the league.
"So I feel like there's a lot of experience with that and now it's just about going about my business and doing it at a high level."
With the loss of Bradberry, Apple has the opportunity to come in and start immediately for the Panthers, and he's ready to use the tough lessons he has learned over the past few years to make a difference for a rebuilding team.
"I'm a tall, rangy, fast corner. Very physical, especially in press coverage. I pride myself on getting hands on (receivers) and disrupting routes," Apple said. "I feel like with those skills, I can fit in, and I'll definitely be a great piece to this defense."
Apple figures to start opposite of Donte Jackson, who is just 24. Despite being a part of this Panthers team for just a few months, Apple's experience makes him feel like "an elder" on the field. Because Carolina is such a young team, he realizes he needs to be a veteran voice in the cornerbacks' room.
The Panthers sported the No. 13 best passing defense in the league last year, as they allowed an average of 231 yards per game through the air. While those aren't the best marks, maintaining that ranking would be considered a win in 2020 considering how many new pieces Carolina has in the secondary. Apple is clearly confident he can be a leader that helps Rhule right the ship quickly in Charlotte.