After his rookie season in 2017, cornerback Gareon Conley was still an unknown quantity. The first-round pick from Ohio State – deemed one of the best corners in that draft – played just two games and, when he did play, showed he still needed polishing.
But in 2018, Conley was healthy and showed the Raiders and the NFL that he could emerge next season as one of the best young cornerbacks in the league.
This season, Conley played 15 games (14 starts), had three interceptions, 15 passes defensed and was in on 37 tackles.
Conley’s body of work in 2018 included holding the Steelers’ Antonio Brown to five catches for just 35 yards and the Chiefs’ Tyreek Hill to one catch for 13 yards. His defense against Brown was a big factor in the Raiders’ 24-21 victory over Pittsburgh, one of just four wins Oakland could produce.
“Being healthy has made a big difference, and going out there knowing my teammates have my back,” Conley said after that game. “I’d say this is the best I’ve felt.”
Raiders head coach Jon Gruden noted Conley missed a lot of training camp because of lingering physical problems, but once he got into a regular routine of practice and play during the season, he came on strong.
“Each week he sees himself covering the best guys in football, and he’s having some success,” Gruden told Paul Gutierrez of ESPN.com recently. “He’s doing the little things right and he’s getting better every week.”
In December, Austin Gayle of the analytic website Pro Football Focus noted that Conley was making huge strides over the second half of 2018. Over a three-week span late in the year, he ranked third in overall grade among all qualifying cornerbacks, seventh in coverage and 10th in run defense. He also was among season-long leaders in passer rating when targeted.
Gayle noted that Conley essentially missed his first year, so he’s catching up.
“He’s just now starting to find his own in the NFL, and he is still multiple steps behind his colleagues (in the 2017 draft class) – a sign that brighter things are to come for Conley,” wrote Gayle.
One person who always had faith in Conley was former Raiders cornerback Lester Hayes, a Pro Football Hall of Famer who told Gutierrez he first noticed Conley at Ohio State in 2015.
“That boy’s got good feet,” Hayes told Gutierrez in December. “He’s not a 4.45-speed guy. He’s more like 4.4-flat. That boy can catch up. You’ve got to have a burst, a turbo charge in one step. He’s got it.”