INDIANAPOLIS – Gareon Conley doesn't have much professional game tape. The Raiders cornerback played just 92 snaps of his rookie season, sidelined with a summer shin injury that eventually required surgery.
New head coach Jon Gruden found ways to evaluate him. He scoured through practice tape from last offseason, from OTAs and the few regular-season sessions featuring the 2017 No. 24 overall pick. That's a vital exercise, considering the state of the Raiders secondary.
TJ Carrie's rookie deal will expire next month. David Amerson got cut. Sean Smith could meet a similar fate, considering his $8.25 million salary (including bonuses) and him facing felony counts of assault and battery.
Gruden has to figure out, without spending on-field time with him, whether the Raiders can count on him as a frontline starter.
Gruden believes he can.
"He's our first-round draft choice," Gruden said at the NFL Scouting Combine. "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 (second-round safety) Obi Melifonwu to play – and we need them to – but we're really excited to start with them."
Conley's talent is unquestioned. He's shockingly quick, with smooth movements and great closing speed. He has excellent ball skills and extreme confidence he can excel on a professional level.
Conley will showcase that ability soon. Gruden said he'll be ready to start the offseason program, an important step after having surgery in late November. He got kicked in the shin during a June minicamp practice, and missed the entire preseason recovering. He was able to play in Weeks 2 and 3, but regressed and was put back on the shelf. Conley never played again, and was formally placed on injured reserve Nov. 13.
Even after so much missed time – Conley doesn't have an injury history – the Raiders believe they have a keeper at one cornerback spot. They need to add another cover man, possibly in the first round of the NFL draft, and re-sign Carrie or another versatile cornerback. They are, however, penciling Conley into the starting lineup right now.
"Prior to his injury, we saw what we thought he was: a No. 1 cornerback. Our evaluations of him coming out of Ohio State were really strong, and his first few weeks in Alameda were really strong. Leading up to the injury, he did not disappoint as a player. …We feel good about his rehab process, but he still has a ways to go to get where he needs to be."