Raiders cornerback Gareon Conley set for bounce back season

Mandatory Credit: Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images
Mandatory Credit: Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images /

Oakland Raiders cornerback Gareon Conley is primed to have a bounce back season after missing most of his rookie year. His preseason performance has been a reminder as to why he was a first-round pick in 2017.

The loaded cornerback class in the 2017 NFL draft class was uniquely deep even before the rookies had hit the field and found unprecedented early success. Marshon Lattimore and Adoree’ Jackson were the two athletic freaks without a talent ceiling, while Marlon Humphrey, Gareon Conley, and Tre’Davious White were above-average athletes and refined technicians. But one-year later, Conley has seemingly been forgotten despite being the most pro-ready talent among the group at the time.

Few first-round picks go through as much turmoil as Conley has since declaring for the draft 18 months ago. A pre-draft rape accusation that later led to a counter lawsuit by Conley caused him to slip to the 24th overall pick, and then a battle with shin splints cost him all but two games in his rookie campaign. He finished 2017 on injured reserve while the rest of the Raiders played like they were also dealing with shin splints.

The 23-year-old is now fully healthy, and was able to play significant snaps in the Raiders’ second and third preseason games. While not yet penciled in as a starter, it’s not going to take him too long to overtake Darryl Worley’s snaps, and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie is more of a slot option.

Conley formed an incredible trio at Ohio State in 2016 as he was surrounded by Lattimore and 2018 first-round pick Denzel Ward. He was the definition of a lockdown cornerback, allowing only 14 receptions, per Pro Football Focus. His ability to dominate in man coverage and his comfort in Cover 4 zone assignments was a major positive as he was expected to start on Day 1.

The Raiders’ cornerbacks room desperately missed a presence who could consistently mirror receivers like Conley. His quick feet and route-recognition isn’t going to win him the popularity that a flashy corner like Jalen Ramsey gets, but he’s in the Desmond Trufant mold of cover corners who deter targets.

Most inexperienced or bad cornerbacks lose at two important junctures of the route: off the line, and at the apex. Allowing separation at these two directional pivots allow offenses to execute with ease unless the pass-rush can alter the throw. These failures can be due to athletic limitations, lack of technical foundation, misdiagnosing the route, or the fear of losing the play.

It’s rare to find a corner who consistently excels in all four of those criteria. The two areas of concern on Conley’s tape had to do with his perceived upside: speed and ball production. Like most collegiate corners (but especially Ohio State’s), Conley attacks the hands of receivers as the ball arrives instead of risking the loss of leverage by turning his head consistently.

His 4.42 speed at the combine and play thus far in two NFL games and two preseason games has suppressed the first concern. The latter is something that won’t keep him from becoming a No. 1 corner, as Darius Slay struggled with converting interception opportunities until 2017, and Trufant still isn’t a top-producer.

Even in limited time, Conley’s shown his advanced feel for routes and coverage technique. Everything about the play above is textbook. Playing press man, Conley establishes contact early while shuffling his feet and never losing balance while Jermaine Kearse tries to get on top of him.

The ball is slightly underthrown, but because Conley’s successfully kept inside leverage, the only passing window was over the outside shoulder right in front of the sideline. If Josh McCown hits that throw, a defender can only tip their cap and move on. Instead Conley was able to explode vertically for the ball whereas most corners would face-guard Kearse and never find it.

His never-panic demeanor has continued this preseason.

Week 2 against the Los Angeles Rams wasn’t against the explosive Rams starters, but was an opportunity to see how he’d react to being tested. His lone target came early as Fred Brown ran a five-yard curl route.

It’s an inauspicious play because of the low-upside for the offense, but it provided an opportunity to see Conley’s footwork and reaction time on an unexpected route. He passed with flying colors.

He never fully opened his hips, which is what Brown and the offense counted on to complete this pass. Many corners will bite on the slight outside pivot, and make a jumping motion that creates an angle for the receiver to cut back to the middle of the field after the catch. While Conley attacks the inside shoulder, he’s stuck to his hip and even a perfect pass will be a difficult play to finish due to his positioning.

Although this play didn’t result in a target, it’s the first time he’d been used in the slot and not as the right cornerback for the Raiders. This could indicate a larger utilization of man assignments for the defense in 2018, a strength of their entire corner depth chart. Conley was routinely used in the slot for the Buckeyes as his career progressed.

His goal on this play is to keep his man working to his inside support and provide help over the top. Safety Reggie Nelson dropped into his zone support, and he executed perfectly. These crossing routes are often used in a mesh concept that can lead to contact and spring a receiver loose.

It’s a difficult task to master the space as a slot corner. The Raiders may not use him there much this year but he has a history of success there if need be.

The small sample that’s now available on Conley is encouraging that he’ll become the star corner they believed they drafted last year. His name has been buried when discussing the up-and-coming young corners across the league but that’s a mistake. There’s been no lingering sign of his shin injury this preseason.

The Raiders’ defense won’t be good this year once again, but Conley has the ability to anchor this secondary. The right move would be to name him the starter across from Rashaan Melvin, and have Rodgers-Cromartie play in the slot or at safety. Conley will flourish if defensive coordinator Paul Guenther gives him the chance.