Cornerback Gareon Conley
In 2017, first-round selection Gareon Conley had the makings of what could've been a promising rookie season, but it was derailed by a lingering injury that limited him to two games. Second-round selection Obi Melifonwu also struggled to stay on the field, failing to play more than five games. Needless to say, neither player's season went according to plan, but what's done is done.
Before last season kicked off, both Conley and Melifonwu were standouts at the NFL Scouting Combine, ranking among some of the Combine's best participants. It was undeniable the Oakland Raiders needed secondary help entering the 2017 campaign, and a year later that's still the case, but the Raiders front office still believes in the young players they selected just a year ago.
During Conley's three years at Ohio State, he totaled 91 tackles, one for loss, half a sack, 15 passes defensed, and four interceptions. Entering the 2017 Combine, it was apparent Conley had starting cornerback talent, which was the first thing Raiders General Manager Reggie McKenzie pointed out Wednesday when asked about No. 22's upside.
"Prior to his injury, we saw what we thought he was, and that's a No. 1 corner," McKenzie said. "Our evaluation of him coming out of Ohio State was really strong, and his first few weeks on campus in Alameda were really strong. Leading up to the injury he did not disappoint who he was as a player, and in our eyes a No. 1 corner. We feel good about his rehab process, but he still has a ways to go to get to where he needs to get to."
It's for that reason, Head Coach Jon Gruden is calling for Conley, among other young players on the roster, to step up. Conley has just one year of experience under his belt, but his new head coach is anxious to tap into his potential.
"He's going to be ready to start the offseason program," Gruden said Wednesday. "Everybody liked Conley at Ohio State. He had an excellent training camp. When I studied the training camp film, he was inside playing the nickel position. When the season started he was out at right corner. He's a young player. We're counting on him and Obi Melifonwu to play, and we need them to. We're really excited to start working with him."
As mentioned previously, Conley's sample size is minimal, but during his time on the field, he showed why the Raiders selected him with the No. 24 overall pick. On one play alone, the former Ohio State Buckeye showed his athleticism, length, and football I.Q.
In Week 2, against the New York Jets, Conley matched up with wide receiver Jermaine Kearse, who tried to beat him deep, but the rookie was having none of it. Jets quarterback Josh McCown heaved up a long ball, but Conley leapt in the air, batted the ball initially, and proceeded to bat the ball away once again, this time to safety Reggie Nelson. While Nelson didn't end up with the interception, Conley's awareness was the highlight of the play, and its plays like this that the Raiders need more of going forward.
That play was almost six months ago, but it spoke volumes to what Conley is capable of when healthy. As Gruden stated, the hope is that the athletic corner can return to action soon, ideally during the offseason program, giving him a couple more months to be fully healthy.
With a new coaching staff, fresh legs, and an injury plagued rookie season behind him, I expect Conley to become the corner everyone knows he can be.