Raiders' Gareon Conley looking to emerge from 'dark world'

"I mean, I feel like it's still my rookie year because I didn't play a lot, but I learned a lot mentally," said cornerback Gareon Conley who missed most of his rookie season in 2017. AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli

ALAMEDA, Calif. -- What's that saying about seeing a light at the end of a tunnel and hoping it's not an oncoming train?

Reintroducing, then, the Oakland Raiders' first-round pick from the 2017 draft, cornerback Gareon Conley.

"It's been a dark world that he's been in, this young man," Raiders coach Jon Gruden said of Conley during minicamp. "He's had a terrible injury he had to rehab from, he's had to change coaches, learn a new system, and it's been a slow and steady process.

"But, man, is he a good player. When he's feeling good, you can see why we picked him [in the first round]."

Indeed, Conley's on-field skills were rarely questioned coming out of Ohio State. Pro Football Focus had him giving up a passer rating of just 14.0 when targeted during the Buckeyes' 2016 season, then the lowest such mark among college corners since PFF began tracking colleges in 2014. He was seen as a top-10 pick, a shutdown cornerback whose game would elevate the pass rush.

But a claim of sexual assault surfaced the week of the draft, and Conley tumbled to the Raiders at No. 24 overall, the fourth cornerback selected, behind Buckeyes teammate Marshon Lattimore (No. 11 overall), Alabama's Marlon Humphrey (No. 16) and USC's Adoree' Jackson (No. 18).

In drafting Conley, the Raiders said they had done their due diligence on him. They believed the claim was baseless. When a grand jury decided not to bring charges against Conley, and he performed well during rookie minicamp and organized team activities, Oakland believed it had made the right decision.

But that’s when the injuries enveloped Conley’s world.

Conley missed the final two minicamp practices last June, and when he was not able to suit up in training camp, it was obvious something was amiss. A shin injury, described as shin splints by general manager Reggie McKenzie early in camp, was laughed off by Conley on social media.

From there, Conley would miss the entire preseason and not make his NFL debut until Week 2 of the regular season, at home against the New York Jets.

And in 28 pass snaps, Conley flashed. He allowed one catch on two targets, for 8 yards, per PFF. He batted down a deep ball down the left sideline intended for Jermaine Kearse and, along with three tackles, seemed on his way.

A week later, though, in Washington, his -- and, really, the entire team's -- season came undone.

Conley, who finished with a PFF grade of 79.6 on 92 total snaps in those two games, reaggravated the shin injury and would not suit up again. Surgery late in the season ensured he would not play until 2018.

"It was really difficult, because I've never been hurt," he said. "It was like, the first time that I've really been hurt and where I've missed time.

"I didn't feel right. I feel like that played a part in the lingering injury, too, because mentally, I wasn't there all of the way."

A dark world? And then some. Which brings us to that proverbial light at the end of the tunnel.

Until missing the last two days of this month's minicamp with a groin issue Gruden did not deem serious, Conley had been a mainstay for the defense during the offseason, lining up at left cornerback in the Raiders' rebuilt first-team defense, opposite free-agent pickup Rashaan Melvin.

It was as if the Raiders had two fresh, first-round draft picks in the offseason program, given Conley's inability to stay on the field last season.


"I mean, I feel like it's still my rookie year because I didn't play a lot, but I learned a lot mentally," Conley said. "I feel like it's my second year mentally and just knowing the game and all the logistics. But physically, I feel like it's my rookie year again because I didn't play a lot.

"It's going to be challenging. I don't feel like it's going to be that difficult, though. I feel like I can lead by example more than just vocally."

Work with new Raiders defensive backs coach Derrick Ansley, who was at Alabama last fall, has been a boon when it comes to Conley's confidence, Gruden said.

That is a must for an unproven (by NFL standards) player counted upon to be the team's No. 1 cornerback. Besides, everyone on Oakland's defense is in the same situation with a new scheme.

Defensive coordinator Paul Guenter's style resembles a Raiders throwback, with the corners playing a lot of press-man at the line of scrimmage. It is also familiar to Conley, who played a similar style at Ohio State.

"Most importantly, he's out there and he's doing good," Guenther said. "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."

Conley has also leaned on a fellow member of the Raiders secondary who has also dealt with injury and expectations of being a first-round draft pick.

"I told him to keep his head up, keep fighting through it," said strong safety Karl Joseph, the Raiders' 2016 first-rounder who entered the NFL rehabbing from a torn ACL and has dealt with turf toe and groin and hamstring issues. "There is a lot of pressure from outside sources and pressure you put on yourself coming in being drafted high. So just keep battling through it, and when you're ready you're going to be ready.

"… I knew that he was a guy that I needed to take under my wing. I'm still young myself, but the knowledge I gained from my first year, battling through the same thing, I could pass on."

The Raiders need that kind of leadership. Last year's team faltered to a 6-10 finish after going 12-4 and playing in the postseason in 2016.

"People weren't all together as one," Conley said. "Everybody [was] kind of in their own lane. I feel like we're all in one lane right now."

With a confident Conley -- he has started marketing himself as "Conley Island" on social media -- in the Raiders' fast lane. But can the Raiders truly miss something they never truly had last year in Conley?

"I feel like I'm back," he said. "I got a long time to recover, and [now I'm] just working with my teammates to get my mental back right. That's really what I'm trying to do.

"I have a chip on my shoulder, but I don't really try to prove people wrong, though. I'm worried about myself and getting back mentally."