All it took was one play, a single batted pass, for Gareon Conley to show his teammates, and all of Raider Nation that he could be the real deal.
In 2017, the former first-round pick struggled to stay on the field, dealing with lingering injuries all season long; however, his Week 2 play against the New York Jets was enough to show off both his football I.Q. and athleticism all in a single highlight. Dropping in coverage against Jets wide receiver Jermaine Kearse, Conley went up for a contested ball, batting it initially in the air, then also having the awareness to try and bat it once more to safety Reggie Nelson who was in the vicinity.
Nelson was unable to haul in the interception, but in just one, single play, Conley showed exactly what he could bring to the table as a defensive back.
Unfortunately due to injuries, the former Ohio State Buckeye wouldn't make more acrobatic plays during his rookie campaign. Conley played in two games, totaled seven tackles, and one pass defensed.
Entering the offseason, the goal was to get No. 21 (formerly No. 22) back to full strength, and three weeks into Organized Team Activities, Conley looks back at playing condition.
"He's doing good. Most importantly, he's out there, and he's doing good," Defensive Coordinator Paul Guenther said Tuesday. "He's really understanding the little details of everything. The press techniques that we're teaching. Some of the different coverages, we have a lot of different coverages in now. He's done a really good job for us."
Forcing turnovers was a problem for the defense as a whole last year, finishing the season with just five interceptions, but General Manager Reggie McKenzie and Head Coach Jon Gruden made it a priority to sign a bevy of defensive backs in free agency to try and remedy the situation. Veteran cornerback Rashaan Melvin was among those signed, and he's coming off a career-year in Indianapolis where he hauled in three interceptions. The 28 year old is excited to work in Guenther's system, and alongside his counterpart Conley.
"I think Gareon Conley is a long guy," Melvin says. "We all know he's a first-round draft pick. He plays confidently and his work ethic… he's one of those guys that you tell him something once, he's able to get it done for you."
"Oh man, I'm happy to see Conley out there running around," safety Reggie Nelson added. "A player of his caliber – long, just like Melvin – he's showing why he was the first-round pick. I think there's a high standard out there for him and he's holding that up. I think Conley is doing a great job right now doing what the coaches ask him to do."
Gruden has emphasized the team's need for Conley to "get it done," and step up in his second year in the league. As a highly-touted prospect a season ago, the hope is that Conley can mature into the Raiders lockdown corner of the future. The Ohio State product totaled 91 tackles, six interceptions, and 15 passes defensed during his three collegiate seasons, and his skill set will be needed if the team wants to improve upon its turnover woes from a year ago.
"Turning the ball over, getting it back to our offense. We've had some opportunities and you see the guys are getting excited about it," Guenther said. "It's good to see that they're all running down there, chasing the guy after he intercepts the ball. It's been good. We've gotten our hands on a lot of balls, we just have to catch them more."
It's clear the 2018 Raiders are a revitalized group, ready to cast a new trajectory in the upcoming season. With a healthy Conley back on the field, the team should see the rise of one of its youngest and most-talented individuals.