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Don’t call it a comeback: How some former Ohio State players are getting their second wind in the NFL playoffs

In Cincinnati and beyond. 

AFC Wild Card Playoffs - Baltimore Ravens v Cincinnati Bengals Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

Eli Apple and Vonn Bell had all the markings of future all-pro defensive backs when both were selected in the first two rounds of the 2016 NFL Draft. Both had a national championship at Ohio State under their belt. They’d been touted since high school. They were part of a class of unbelievable athletes that included Joey Bosa, Michael Thomas, and Ezekiel Elliott. It was the cool kids club of the college football world and the reason Ohio State had such an incredible recruiting run in the ensuing years.

Things didn’t go as planned. Apple in particular struggled with the New York Giants, the team that took him No. 10 overall. While he had a promising rookie season, he was sidelined at times with injury. In his sophomore campaign, he was suspended by the Giants for conduct detrimental to the team. New York traded Apple seemingly at its earliest opportunity just a few weeks into the 2018 season.

Apple at that point joined Bell in New Orleans, which seemed to be the southern retreat for former Ohio State players. Bell’s opening seasons with New Orleans were tepid — not bad, but also not all-pro level. In 2020, Bell signed with the Cincinnati Bengals. After a pit stop in Carolina in 2020, Apple joined Bell and the Bengals in 2021.

Then things changed. The Bengals, with a competent offense, found themselves in the Super Bowl following the 2021 regular season. Apple and Bell, along with fellow former Buckeye Sam Hubbard, were key to that Super Bowl-caliber defense. After several seasons as the afterthoughts of former Ohio State draft picks, their careers got their second winds.

Consider for a moment just how rare that is: It’s not often that NFL players get second chances to reach their star potential. Sure, we saw an example of a rejuvenated quarterback who made their way back to a starting role this year (Geno Smith), but with fresh, young talent coming into the league every season, players with histories of injury or disciplinary issues would certainly be shunted away, especially if their production wasn’t at an all-pro level.

If players can’t cut it early in their NFL careers, it’s easy to write them off. It’s easy to point to their performance and say they don’t have what it takes. Plus, scouts are really good at their jobs. They can find replacements in a heartbeat in the upcoming draft.

It’s useful for NFL teams to bring in the still-young players fresh off their rookie contracts. They’re cheaper than high draft picks and there’s less variability about what they’re bringing to the party. In other words, there is film of these players playing in NFL games. It makes sense that Bell and Apple got their new contracts with Cincinnati, which had just shelled out big money to Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase.

And while Bell and Apple may have been pegged as journeymen at that point, they both managed to take the opportunity and turn things around and remain an integral part of one of the NFL’s best defenses.

Apple and Bell are not alone. Noah Brown, taken with a seventh-round pick by the Dallas Cowboys in the 2017 NFL Draft, is still on the Cowboys and, in fact, had two catches in the Cowboys’ playoff game against the San Francisco 49ers.

And then there are players like 35-year-old long snapper Jake McQuaide who somehow is still in the league after all this time and after we probably didn’t know his name when he was at Ohio State.

While these players are less-so redemption stories, there’s something to be said for the fact both found themselves in the playoffs after all these years.

We have to acknowledge the perseverance and resilience these career trajectories had to take. Even Brown, who has remained with the Cowboys throughout his career, has spent significant time on injured reserve and has needed to battle back to keep his spot on the roster.

We still have a lot of former Buckeyes remaining in the playoffs. And a few of them might be one step closer to reaching a championship at another level.