CINCINNATI — Chidobe Awuzie knew after his season-ending knee injury he was missing out on being part of a “special” secondary that might look very different next season, but the Cincinnati Bengals cornerback is hoping if players depart in free agency, they are replaced by similar leaders.
Speaking on Monday as players were going through the annual locker cleanout, Awuzie said he was disappointed to miss the second half of the season while the Bengals went on a 10-game winning streak to advance to a second straight AFC Championship. The run halted there with a 23-20 loss at Kansas City, and the finality of the ending especially hit players hard knowing some key starters might not be back next season.
In the secondary alone, three starters are on expiring deals: free safety Jessie Bates, strong safety Vonn Bell and cornerback Eli Apple.
“It’s hard,” Awuzie said. “Every season is different. Every team is different, and I think we’ve been blessed the past two years to be a part of a defense that kept its nucleus for two years. That’s a long time for most teams. So, yeah, we’ve definitely been spoiled, but at the same time, we’ve built something special here so that when new faces come, they know what the standard is, they know what we expect. They know the culture in this locker room. And, yeah, we just need to bring in the right people that could respond to that culture and not disrespect it because it’s something special that will always keep us bonded, the people that were on these past two teams together.”
Awuzie, who underwent ACL surgery in November, tried to “put that in the universe” that perhaps both Bates and Bell will return next season. He also shared high praise for Apple, who he says stepped up in his absence but had been performing well even when not in the spotlight.
Bates and Bell have been staples on the back end of the defense the past three years together, but Apple was brought in ahead of the 2021 season as an expected depth piece at cornerback and ended up starting out of necessity both of his two years in Cincinnati. He was on the verge of being replaced by rookie Cam Taylor-Britt when Awuzie went down but played his best ball in the second half of the season.
“Of course he’s always improving, but I think the narrative that before he wasn’t playing well, that’s always something that, you know, at corner when people are looking at you every play, you’re not going to succeed,” Awuzie said. “I don’t succeed every play but sometimes it gets heightened more and those eyes are on you. … I believe he’s always been a great corner. It’s just a matter of in those moments, he was starting to make those plays where everybody was looking at him. So yeah, he did step up definitely in the locker room, as a leader in the meeting room and on the field. His play has always been at a certain standard, and I think he’s always reached that level.”
Apple said he’s faced doubters his entire career, but in Cincinnati, he was surrounded by people that believed in him, especially defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo, who helped bring him here. He appreciated the chance to show the athletic ability he always knew he had and regained confidence in himself over the past two years.
As he heads into free agency, he said he would love to stay with the Bengals. He wants to be somewhere he can show his impact, and he believes that’s still possible in Cincinnati. If Sunday was his last game, he carries with him a lot of motivation for the future.
“To me, playing in these big stages just gives you more motivation, added motivation,” Apple said. “There’s nothing like it. Honestly anybody that’s played in and knows the feeling, it’s very intoxicating, the kind of like a drug crazy feeling so just chasing that every time you play and just use that motivation every day to get better, that’s the best part.”
Awuzie should be back for the start of the 2023 season, though he said he doesn’t have a specific timeline. He’s working out and lifting but not able to run yet, and he is just staying patient as he builds back his strength.
If Apple is back for another year, he likely faces competition with Taylor-Britt, who showed progress over the second half of the season. The second-round draft pick had gotten off to a slow start because of an injury of his own in training camp, but said his first season was a good experience and he looks forward to more development in Year 2.
The Bengals are counting on that.
“Honestly, just the relationships that you build, I learned a lot,” Taylor-Britt said. “When I say, ‘A lot’, it’s just filled with a lot of stuff. Guys trusted in me and leaned on me when they needed me. It was definitely okay for me to lean on them when I needed.”
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