How Eli Apple shook off early career struggles to become key Bengals contributor

CINCINNATI -- Cincinnati Bengals cornerback Eli Apple could be heard before he was seen as he ran toward the visitors’ locker room after a blowout win against the Baltimore Ravens in October.

At the entrance of 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, referencing the Ravens’ catch phrase over the years. “Huge truss. Not big but very astronomical truss. Astronomical.”

After the first of two blowout wins this season over Baltimore, it was a moment of unfiltered joy for someone who experienced little of that during one of the most topsy-turvy NFL careers in the past decade.

In his fifth year in the league, Apple is having his best season yet and has been a key part of the Bengals’ push to their first playoff berth since 2015.

“I’ll say I’m definitely having the most fun,” Apple told ESPN. “I’ve been the most healthy. I’ve been the most happy that I’ve been, I feel like, in a long time.”

Those statements are significant considering the gauntlet of experiences Apple has had since the New York Giants selected him with the 10th overall pick in the 2016 NFL draft.

The short version: Labeled a locker room “cancer” by a Giants teammate, 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 battled through injuries in his lone year there.

Looking back, Apple admits he “didn’t handle everything great in New York” and lacked the maturity to handle adversity and keep negative events from affecting him.

“I’ll have a good moment and then something else would happen, it would be a bad moment,” Apple said. “I wouldn’t be able to bounce back the way I need to.”

Following his season with the Panthers, Apple needed a new team and the Bengals needed to bolster 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 hasn’t looked back. Through 15 games, his allowed completion percentage as the nearest defender in coverage is 4.8% below expectation, the best percentage on the team, according to NFL Next Gen.

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

“You don’t have any of that with Eli,” Anarumo said.

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

Apple is now a strict vegan, which means his mother, Annie Apple, has been forced to change many of her recipes, including a signature jollof rice. Eli, who grew up terrified of needles, now undergoes acupuncture as a form of physical rehab. 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 surrendered to Donovan Peoples-Jones in a loss against Cleveland on Week 9 – that prompted some criticism from the fan base . Still, Bengals 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 don't envy the position those guys get in, but he does a great job. He plays 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, 1 p.m. ET on CBS), Apple will be a key contributor with Cincinnati (9-6) needing one win out of its final two games to clinch the AFC North title.

At the moment, Apple is self-actualized and enjoying an immense sense of freedom, prompting moments like the one after the win at Baltimore. It’s a reflection of the joy and self-confidence Apple has with Cincinnati. And it’s going to take a lot to change that.

“You gotta just worry about yourself and know that whatever you think about yourself is way more important than somebody else,” Apple said. “As long as you work hard and put that work in, you don’t gotta worry about anybody else.”