Eli Apple

Eli Apple, Panthers agree to deal after Raiders pact scrapped in April

Eli Apple, Panthers agree to deal after Raiders pact scrapped in April

Eli Apple never finalized a contract with the Raiders, and the free-agent cornerback has agreed to join their scheduled Week 1 opponents.

Apple reached an agreement on a one-year deal with the Carolina Panthers on Thursday, the team announced.

The Raiders are set to play the Panthers in Charlotte on Sept. 13, and the Silver and Black could line up against the man the front office initially pegged to have a shot to start opposite Trayvon Mullen. A league source confirmed to NBC Sports Bay Area's Scott Bair on March 18 that Apple and the Raiders agreed to terms on a deal.

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But Apple never put pen to paper, and the deal officially fell apart on April 2 due in part to an inability to get a physical. The Raiders quickly changed course to bolster their secondary, adding Damarious Randall that same day and selecting defensive backs Damon Arnette (first round, No. 19 overall) and Amik Robertson (fourth round, No. 129 overall) in the draft a few weeks later. They also officially signed veteran corner Prince Amukamara on May 18.

Will the Raiders regret not bringing Apple in? It will be too early to tell after Week 1, but the Silver and Black will have all the more reason to want to take a bite out of the Panthers with Apple on the roster.

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NFL Draft 2020: Raiders still have defensive need after free agency

NFL Draft 2020: Raiders still have defensive need after free agency

The Raiders added 12 new players in unrestricted free agency, with a decided slant toward one unit. A total of nine new defenders are joining the Silver and Black, with general manager Mike Mayock believing they can insert several into the starting lineup or as a featured part of a rotation.

That’s especially true in the front seven. Maliek Collins should be a major player at defensive tackle. Nick Kwiatkoski and Cory Littleton were paid big bucks to be three-down linebackers.

Carl Nassib got a handsome sum to join Clelin Ferrell and Maxx Crosby off the edge and he’ll compete for playing time.

Damarious Randall was a late signing but should get first crack at the free safety gig. Jeff Heath has experience behind and joins Erik Harris at that spot, creating depth when adding Johnathan Abram’s return from a shoulder injury.

Those additions give Mayock freedom heading into next week’s NFL draft.

“It allows us to go into the draft on the defensive side of the ball and just say, ‘OK, where’s the best football player? Let’s go get him.’”

There’s an exception to that rule, and it’s pretty obvious.

Cornerback.

The Raiders can get by on what they’ve got at every spot except one their worked hard to fill in free agency. They tried to get Byron Jones and Chris Harris Jr. and came up empty.

Their Eli Apple deal fell through, though Randall was an excellent consolation prize. He’s a better player and put the Raiders in a better position with the salary cap.

Mayock said the Raiders are excited by 2019 fourth-round pick Isaiah Johnson, a long and fast converted receiver who missed most of last season with an injury. He’s certainly capable of coming on strong in 2020 but that’s no sure thing. He propped up Keisean Nixon and Dylan Mabin, another young player who got hurt early.

“We’ve got four or five young corners who we’re kind of intrigued by,” Mayock said. “Now, do we think that we need to get better there? Yeah. But you always have to be careful to see how the board will fall. I think the biggest mistakes people make, is trying to reach for need. So, the board will fall whatever way it falls and if we’re fortunate enough to get a corner that’d be great.”

The Raiders will have an opportunity to snag a plug-and-play type at No. 12 overall and possibly No. 19. There’s talent into the third round when the Raiders pick next, though it’s harder to expect an instant impact player from that portion of the NFL draft.

We explored options atop the draft, including a long look at Florida’s C.J. Henderson being the choice at No. 12 and whether the team should trade up for Ohio State’s Jeff Okudah.

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Those guys could satisfy a truly pressing need, though a cluster of lower first-round talents including Alabama’s Trevon Diggs, Clemson’s A.J. Terrell and LSU’s Kristian Fulton also are out there.

It will be interesting to see how the Raiders address the cornerback spot. If they land a good one, the Silver and Black could be in line to play far better defense in 2020 than recent seasons.

NFL Draft 2020: Why Raiders trading up for Jeff Okudah is perfect move

NFL Draft 2020: Why Raiders trading up for Jeff Okudah is perfect move

The Raiders took on the challenge of upgrading their defense during free agency, improving a linebacking corps that had been a zero for years and adding talent to the defensive line.

But they exited free agency with a massive hole at cornerback after their contract agreement with Eli Apple fell through. As it stands now, Trayvon Mullen is cemented at one corner with either Isaiah Johnson or Nevin Lawson starting on the other side.

Of course, the NFL draft gs the Raiders several draft options to fill the gaping cavity at cornerback. With picks No. 12 and 19, the Raiders could select Florida's CJ Henderson, LSU's Kristian Fulton or Clemson's A.J. Terrell. Those three are in a group of cornerbacks slated to go after Ohio State's Jeff Okudah, a projected top-10 pick. But the Raiders -- with two first-round picks --- have the ammo needed to trade up for Okudah -- a potential future star -- and shore up their secondary for the next five years with him, Mullen and safety Johnathan Abram.

The Raiders have more than one need, though. Corner is pressing, but they need to find wide-receiver help and reportedly are interested in taking a defensive tackle in the first round. A trade up for Okudah would force them to surrender the No. 12 and No. 19 picks. Should the Raiders, a team with multiple needs, sacrifice one first-round pick and a shot at an elite wide receiver in a loaded class to snag Okudah?

The short answer is yes. Normally, I'd say a team like the Raiders should stack as much talent as possible, but Okudah's transcendent talent at a marquee position makes him an exception.

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Let's break down Okudah first.

The 6-foot-1, 200-pound defensive back might as well be an alien.

You turn on the tape and see an elite, shutdown corner with skills that would make the likes of Deion Sanders, Champ Bailey and Aeneas Williams drool.

Okudah has ridiculously quiet feet that allow him to backpedal and shuffle outside his frame while maintaining balance. His ability to play in press-man coverage is textbook and should be taught in grade school in lieu of geometry. He is comfortable playing and staying connected or trailing. His ability to mirror receivers' release moves and understand when he's being tricked is uncanny.

Then, there are the ball skills. Okudah is nothing short of elite in this area as well. He has incredible leaping ability, excels at locating the ball at the catch point and forcing pass breakups with his toughness and physicality.

If you aren't sold yet, let's talk about his reactionary quickness. Okudah is never, and I do mean never, out of place. He has the quickness to be able to bait quarterbacks by giving separation and closing at what seems like an impossible rate. The junior was the only cornerback in the 2020 class to not allow a reception of more than 15 yards.

Okudah is not scheme or matchup dependent. He has all the tools of an elite, shutdown, Pro Bowl corner and one who can be that good very, very quickly. The combination of size, speed and athleticism is reminiscent of Jalen Ramsey and Stephon Gilmore. The only knock on Okudah would be that he only had three interceptions last season, but that's because opposing quarterbacks were too scared to throw at him.

Look at this footwork.

These coverage skills don't come around every year.

So, he's a top 10 pick and a likely Pro Bowl/All-Pro talent. What's it going to take to go get Okudah?

If we assume Joe Burrow is going to go No. 1 and Chase Young No. 2, that would leave the Detroit Lions on the clock with Okudah still on the board. There's a chance teams will start running up the draft board to secure quarterbacks Justin Herbert and Tua Tagovailoa, which could see Okudah fall to No. 6 or No. 7. Regardless, there is zero shot Okudah falls to 12 and, frankly, I'd be surprised if he gets past the Lions at No. 3, unless they are blown away with a trade offer.

The Raiders' offer would have to include Nos. 12 and 19 and perhaps a future later-round pick or two. The Lions drive a hard bargain. They know what Okudah is worth, and they also will have other offers for teams wanting to go up and get a quarterback. As long as Okudah is on the board, the Raiders should be doing what they can to draft him.

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There's no doubt adding a CeeDee Lamb or Henry Ruggs would be a nice treat for the offense. But first-round receivers often are hit-and-miss, and you can find talent at receiver later on in the draft. This is a deep receiver class with talent throughout. You can find a Chase Claypool, Michael Pittman or Van Jefferson on Day 2.

The chances of finding a star cornerback late on Day 2 or early in Day 3 are slim to none, and Okudah is in his own stratosphere. Sure, the Raiders could take a shot on Jaylon Johnson, Damon Arnette or Cameron Dantzler and they could turn out to be starting caliber NFL cornerbacks, or even Pro Bowlers.

But Jeff Okudah is a sure thing. He'll make Pro Bowls (lots of them) and undoubtedly be a multiple-time All-Pro if he stays healthy.

To win in today's NFL, you have to be able to create explosive plays and stop them. By drafting Okudah, the Raiders would have two young, talented cornerbacks who can play on islands against the best the NFL has to offer.

Okudah has all the talent to be a star from Day 1, and he'll only get better. He's a bonafide plug-and-play shutdown star the second he steps on the field.

He's as can't miss as they get, and the Raiders should do what they can to put him in silver and black.