Matt Rhule sees elite traits in CB Eli Apple

Eli Apple

The Panthers brought in cornerback Eli Apple late last week — a former first-round pick with significant starting experience for two teams over his first four years in the league. On Wednesday, head coach Matt Rhule revealed Carolina had targeted Apple during free agency. Two months later, they landed their guy.

"I think the thing about Eli is he has elite, elite traits," Rhule said during a video conference call with reporters. "He's 6-1, he's strong, he's 4.3 (40-yard dash speed). He has all the traits to be a good player. Our job now is to put it all together with him."

During his first four seasons, Apple has made 48 starts between the Giants and Saints, totaling three interceptions and 33 passes defensed.

Rhule hopes that based on Apple's age — he's still just 24 — and traits, the cornerback's best football could be ahead of him.

"I think his talent and, hopefully, his approach will match well with the way we do things and the way that we want to play," Rhule said. "If it works out, I think between he and Donte Jackson and the rest of the guys we drafted and the rest of the guys we have on the roster, that could be a strength for us."

In evaluating Apple, Rhule said he and secondary assistant coaches Jason Simmons and Evan Cooper focused more on the cornerback's skills and how they could translate to the Panthers' defense.

"I don't like to judge people based upon their experiences in other systems with other people," Rhule said. "I love to see what they do for us — if, if, if — I think they have the traits that we need. That's probably the college coach in me feeling like when you recruit, you recruit certain traits and you try to develop them.

"I think when you get players who are 23, 24, 25 — they're still in that stage. Their best football is hopefully ahead of them. When you get to like, 29, 30, 31, they are what they've put on tape. I think these younger guys, we can help them play their best football."

BRINGING IN SCHOFIELD

Wednesday was also the first time Rhule addressed the media since the club brought in Michael Schofield. He is the third player Carolina acquired this offseason that has played under offensive line coach Pat Meyer at a previous stop, joining left tackle Russell Okung and guard John Miller.

"Schofield to me is a guy that can play tackle, can play guard," Rhule said. "To me, he's a guy that's still young as an offensive lineman. He's really smart, really tough. Brings a ton of versatility."

But if Schofield is going to earn a starting spot at guard, he'll have to win what should be one of the tighter position battles this preseason.

"We see Dennis Daley, a guy that really played well at times last year — his best football is right there in front of him," Rhule said. "Another guy that was on the roster last year, and you go back and watch the tape and say he's got a chance to be a really good player if we can do it right on our end is Chris Reed. And obviously, we signed Johnny (Miller).

"I feel good about that position. We have some young guys and we have some vets that could all get in there and battle it out."

VIRTUALLY IMPLEMENTING A SYSTEM

These are unprecedented times as the Panthers continue their virtual offseason program, and as Rhule put it, there isn't a playbook for how to navigate through things.

"It's not like you can call up the other NFL head coaches and commiserate and say, 'How are you guys handling this?' You kind of have to figure it out on your own," Rhule said. "We're all on an even playing field as coaches in terms of figuring out how to manage this."

Rhule admitted that one issue is he hasn't been with the vast majority of his players in person, saying he's met only about 20 of the 90 men currently on the roster. So the coaching staff is spending this time focused on helping players learn as much as possible.

"One of the hardest things about being a good football player or playing in a new system is you have to think. I want to challenge our coaches and our coaches are challenging themselves to teach the system," Rhule said. 

"I talk about the four levels of learning for our guys. We're trying to get to level four of mastery of the system. We want our guys to master the system so that when we do get together and the physical part starts, that we are in shape enough to prevent injuries and allow us to practice and spend time together. But most importantly, that we don't have to spend a lot of time learning the system — that we can go out there and perfect our craft, not learn, our craft."

UPCOMING DATES

As we all know right now, most plans for the future are fluid. At this point, the Panthers' virtual offseason program is scheduled to run through June 26, and Rhule said training camp is slated to begin sometime around July 28.

"Those are the dates we know now, and I know every day that something could change," Rhule said. "I appreciate that and I won't complain about it. I just deal with it."

Beyond that, the NFL told teams this week that training camps must be held at their home sites, which means the Panthers will not be heading to Wofford College. Also, to mitigate risk, teams will not be able to conduct joint practices. Rhule revealed Carolina had been discussing practicing with Baltimore prior to their preseason game.

View photos of cornerback Eli Apple's career with the New Orleans Saints and New York Giants.

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