Eli Apple Landing Spots: Bills, Cardinals, 49ers, Vikings among teams that could pursue Bengals free agent CB

    Where are the potential landing spots for Cincinnati Bengals CB Eli Apple if he leaves via free agency in 2022?

    After bouncing around the league for several years, Eli Apple seemed to find a home with the Cincinnati Bengals in 2021. After surprisingly becoming a full-time starter in Cincinnati, will the former first-round pick stay with the Bengals when free agency opens? If not, where are the possible landing spots for the 26-year-old cornerback?

    Eli Apple’s free-agent profile

    Apple joined the Bengals in March 2021 on a one-year, $1.2 million deal. He was originally viewed as a depth piece whose value derived from his familiarity with defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo’s scheme (thanks to their shared time with the Giants). But an injury to Trae Waynes forced Apple to become a starter in Week 1 — and he wouldn’t relinquish the job the rest of the season.

    Playing the most snaps of his career (979), Apple was essentially the same player he’s always been. He had flashes of brilliance, but on the whole, he was largely inconsistent. Apple allowed a 60.3% completion rate, 12.8 yards per completion, and a passer rating of 86.6. He’s skilled enough to serve as a competent No. 2 CB. But he’s also the type of player who’s always on the verge of being replaced.

    Despite his youth and draft pedigree, Apple is unlikely to garner a significant multi-year deal on the open market. He’s simply struggled too much throughout his career to be fully trusted. Additionally, he essentially missed the entire 2020 campaign with a hamstring injury.

    Whether or not Apple remains in Cincinnati will likely hinge on the Bengals’ approach with Waynes. The latter has a cap charge of roughly $16 million in 2022, but the Bengals can release him and incur just $5 million in dead money. If Waynes is locked in as a starter next year, Apple will likely try to find a starting role elsewhere.

    Eli Apple’s landing spots

    Projecting potential destinations for cornerbacks is a somewhat difficult exercise because nearly every NFL team could use extra CBs. To narrow things down, we’ll focus on teams where Apple would have a decent chance at starting. Plus, given that he experienced success with the Saints and Bengals in recent years, we’ll guess Apple wants to play for a team that’s at least on the fringes of playoff contention.

    Buffalo Bills

    The Bills already have one of the best pass defenses in the NFL. They ranked No. 1 in both expected points added (EPA) per dropback and DVOA, Football Outsiders’ efficiency metric. Tre’Davious White went down with a torn ACL but is a perennial All-Pro, while Taron Johnson is one of the more underrated slot corners in the league.

    No. 2 outside cornerback Levi Wallace is the weak link, but he’s a solid player as well. In fact, he’s a lot like Apple — good enough to start but inconsistent enough to where Buffalo is constantly on the lookout for an upgrade. If Wallace walks in free agency, Apple could be an effective stop-gap. He’d be solid enough to help fill the void on an already stellar defense. The Bills could select a corner on Day 1 or 2 of the 2021 NFL Draft and plug Apple into the starting lineup until the rookie is ready to play.

    Arizona Cardinals

    Buffalo’s rankings on the defensive leaderboards make sense. Arizona’s do not. The Cardinals ranked fifth in pass defense DVOA and sixth in EPA/dropback despite having nowhere near the Bills’ level of cornerback talent.

    Slot defender Byron Murphy will be back in 2022. But Robert Alford hadn’t played since 2018 before seeing 580 snaps this year — he went on the injured reserve with a pectoral injury in December. The Cardinals did a nice job hiding rookie fourth-round pick Marco Wilson, but he still allowed a passer rating of 120.8 on 748 defensive snaps. He became just the 19th rookie CB since 2000 to be drafted in the fourth round or later and start at least 10 games.

    Even if defensive coordinator and head coaching candidate Vance Joseph returns next season, Arizona’s defense is likely due for some regression. Apple certainly isn’t enough to stave off that backslide. But he would likely be an improvement over both Alford and Wilson. Furthermore, the Cardinals will enter the offseason with less than $3 million in cap space. Thus, Apple’s affordability could hold some appeal.

    San Francisco 49ers

    San Francisco’s cornerback depth chart could use some work. The 49ers have had to rely on their outstanding defensive line pressuring quarterbacks in order to help their secondary. Emmanuel Moseley is serviceable on one side. But the Niners can’t enter next season while counting on Dontae Johnson, Ambry Thomas, or Josh Norman.

    The 49ers haven’t shown much enthusiasm for signing free agent corners during the Kyle Shanahan/John Lynch era. The only external free agent CB additions who earned more than $3 million annually in San Francisco were Richard Sherman and Jason Verrett. I wouldn’t expect Apple to command much more than $3-5 million on a one-year deal, so he could be within the 49ers’ range.

    Minnesota Vikings

    New Vikings general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah has his work cut out for him. Minnesota is capped out, dealing with an aging roster, and facing a decision on Kirk Cousins. Adofo-Mensah must decide whether he wants to stay the course for at least one more season and try to compete in a potentially Aaron Rodgers-less NFC North or blow things up and start over.

    Either way, the Vikings need to find a starting CB to play opposite Cameron Dantzler. I don’t expect Minnesota to re-sign Patrick Peterson. He wasn’t all that productive in 2021, and he’s entering his age-32 campaign. Apple is five years younger. He could ink a one-year deal with the Vikings and become an extension candidate if he performs well next season.

    Las Vegas Raiders

    In Nate Hobbs, the Raiders seemed to have found a hidden gem in the fifth round of the 2021 NFL Draft. He’ll man the slot for the next several years, but Las Vegas still has work to do on the outside. Casey Hayward could move on as a free agent. Meanwhile, Brandon Facyson was a career special teamer prior to this season — and it showed when he was asked to play starting snaps.

    The Raiders were relying on Desmond Trufant for the last several weeks of the regular season and into their Wild Card game against the Bengals. That can’t happen again. Las Vegas needs to get younger and acquire more depth on the back end. Apple would become an instant starter for the Raiders, especially if Hayward signs with another team.

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