Cornerback Eli Apple says it was a "no-brainer," to return to Cincinnati and on a day filled with roster moves and free-agent strategy the Bengals surprised no one when reports surfaced Thursday night that former Cowboys right tackle La'el Collins is due at Paul Brown Stadium for a visit in the wake of his release from Dallas.
Earlier reports Thursday said Apple agreed to a one-year, $4 million deal in a reunion with the team that revived his career last season. Also expected to sign a one-year deal, reportedly, is Falcons tight end Hayden Hurst.
The Bengals don't announce deals until they are signed.
While Collins gets to know the Bengals Friday, Cincinnati gets to know his potential starting mates on the right side of the line when free-agent right guard Alex Cappa and center Ted Karras are expected to be introduced at a PBS news conference.
Working on his fourth team since the Giants took him with the 10th pick in the 2016 draft, Apple started all but one game for a defense that carried the Bengals through the playoffs into Super Bowl LVI. Circle Apple's tackle of the Chiefs' slippery Tyreek Hill on the Bengals 1 as time ran out in the first half as the turning point of the AFC championship game. And, of course, the week before that there was his tipped ball that ended up in an interception with 20 seconds left that led to the division round win in Tennnessee.
The Rams beat them in the big game two weeks later and then during their victory parade declared they'll run it back for another title in 2022. On Thursday night, Apple said he hoped to do the same thing.
Except with a different ending.
"All during the season I was just thinking about what a special team I was just blessed to be a part of," said Apple, who signed a one-year with the Bengals 51 weeks ago after playing just two games with the Panthers in 2020. "It was really a no brainer for me to come back. I wanted to play with those guys again. I want to run it back with that same group and just do it again. But just finish the way you want to.
"The motivation is always the Super Bowl. Being plays away from winning one, it has everyone extra motivated as a team to do everything the right way. To work smarter and better and improve in every area. That's my mindset. Improve in every way I can to get this team back into that position."
Apple isn't hiding from those plays. Like the last play. He's not ducking. He's not alibiing. None of this, "I haven't looked at the film yet."
"I couldn't wait. I was like, 'I have to see this,'" Apple said. "I thought I knew what I did and I did."
The Bengals defense that had been so good in the postseason and so good in the first 54 minutes of the Super Bowl watched the Rams wake up on a 79-yard play drive in 4:48. The last play, with the Bengals 85 seconds from the title, was quarterback Matthew Stafford's perfectly-placed shot-put back-shoulder throw from the one-yard line to Super Bowl MVP Cooper Kupp beating Apple.
"It was a good throw and catch by two pretty good players," Apple said. "I wish I could have got hands on at the line, not open my hips, lock my hips … A split second. Just enough separation … Technical stuff like that. I could have played the ball better. Changed the game. Possibly won it."
Apple's honest about this, too. It's not something you forget. You put it away and move on, but you never lose it.
"Any football player in that moment, the lights, that big of a stage, stuff like that you don't ever forget,' Apple said. "You can say you do, whatever you want to say. But you're always thinking what you could have done better. That's just the nature of being a competitor. To me, it's in the past and I use it for fuel for the next game. You can't get too far ahead. It's about the next game and I'm going to use it to get better for the next game."
Apple says there's no doubt in his mind the Bengals can keep what he calls "the magic," rolling into this season.
"Let's do it. It was a whole lot of fun, for sure," Apple said. "We've got the talent, we've got the coaches."
One Bengals coach in particular figures to be at the center of the Collins visit. As the Cowboys offensive line coach from 2015-17, Bengals current offensive line coach Frank Pollack groomed Collins from an undrafted rookie left guard to a formidable starting right tackle.
Collins missed all of 2020 with a hip injury and last year got embroiled in a drug testing dispute with the NFL that he vehemently fought. If he's looking for a change of scenery, Cincinnati has been a bountiful spot for such players and Peter Schaffer, his agent, knows it.
Schaffer, best known in Cincy these days as Bengals running back Joe Mixon's agent, shepherded Adam Jones' stirring NFL comeback that resulted in a memorable eight-year, 100-game career with the Bengals.