Gareon Conley's play, progress bright spot for Raiders present and future

Gareon Conley's play, progress bright spot for Raiders present and future

ALAMEDA -- Ravens receiver Michael Crabtree got off the line free, went up 5 or so yards and tried a stutter step to create extra separation.

Gareon Conley didn’t bite. The Raiders cornerback followed his former teammate and last week’s enemy stride for stride, anticipated the ball heading his way and got a perfectly timed and placed hand to defense it. The ball deflected softly up, where Marcus Gilchrist could easily intercept it.

“I was in the right place at the right time,” Gilchrist said postgame. “That was all Gareon.”

It’s not the first nice play that last year’s first-round draft pick has made this season. He has six passes defensed and two interceptions, including one returned for a touchdown. He has allowed 51.4 percent of his targets to be completed and a paltry 66.1 passer rating.

Conley's passer rating against is sixth-best among cornerbacks with 100-plus coverage snaps, according to Pro Football Focus. The analytics produced another interesting stat regarding Conely’s good coverage, saying he has forced an incompletion on 28 percent of his targets while playing outside, which ranks third in the NFL this season.

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“He’s getting better,” Raiders coach Jon Gruden said. “I think his practices have been better. I think that’s a big part of it, his preparation on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday has been better and more consistent. He’s been healthy. I really credit Derrick Ansley, our secondary coach. He works good with him.

"His technique is better. He’s more consistent. Playing with confidence. He’s improving. I like it.”

Conley will be tested by the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday at the Coliseum, defending both the run and pass. He always has been deservedly confident in coverage, but he isn’t blind to his deficiencies and is working to improve in one particular area.

“My emphasis is tackling, and getting more hands on ball-carrier players,” Conley said. “Besides that, I feel like I can just go out and play.”

Conley’s coverage already is pretty solid, though he has missed some tackles in the run game or taken poor angles that have led to big plays. Those things are being rectified with technique and building strength.

“I think a lot of that had to do with his lower body strength, just coming off the recovery of his injury where he was more rehabbing early in the year,” defensive coordinator Paul Guenther said. “Now we get to work on strengthening the lower body and those types of things, becoming balanced and being in a good football position when he tackles. He struggled some in the beginning of the year on a couple of those plays, but he’s gotten better.”

[RELATED: Chiefs' run game, even without Hunt, still can trouble Raiders]

Conley has the size, speed and ball skills to be a top cornerback in this league. This year’s experience has been vital, and it’s one that Guenther considers to be Conley's second rookie season.

Conley played just two games last year due to issues with his shin that the Raiders tried to solve with rest and recovery. He eventually had surgery to repair it and wasn’t fully back until late in the offseason program. He suffered a groin injury in training camp, but he has been available ever since.

“I only played two games last year,” Conley said. "I got the feel of things a little bit, but now I have a better understanding of how the league goes and how teams come at you.”

He’s learning on the job, and is one of a young Raiders defense’s best players heading down the home stretch. The goal is to finish strong and keep building on his talent base.

“I just want keep making instinct plays, relying on my technique,” Conley said. “I missed a couple big tackles this year, and I can always get better in that area. I can get better in press coverage in general and jamming guys at the line (of scrimmage). I can always get better, and I’m going to keep working to do that.”

Conley already is a respected member of the Ohio State cornerback fraternity, many of whom are succeeding in the NFL. Conley, Marshon Lattimore, Denzel Ward, Bradley Roby and Eli Apple have made hay in the pros, and they all remain close while representing different teams.

“Those are all my brothers, man,” Conley said. “We all thrive off each other. When we were together, we competed with each other and always wanted the best for each other. That carries over into the league.”

Onion's Derek Carr-Antonio Brown 'article' hilariously addresses Raiders drama

Onion's Derek Carr-Antonio Brown 'article' hilariously addresses Raiders drama

The Raiders have been nothing short of a headline for The Onion before the regular season even starts. 

Frost-bitten feet in France? Check. Refusing to wear a helmet? Check. Being sued by a chef? Check. 

All three stories have revolve around one player, too: Antonio Brown.

Now AB and his quarterback Derek Carr actually are being made into stories for the satirical website. Here's the headline: Derek Carr Distraught After Reading ‘Hard Knocks’ Script Where He Stabs Antonio Brown In Season Finale

And here's a snippet of what the site wrote with a fake Carr quote': “I know the showrunners have been setting up AB’s downfall, but it is still hard to know that I’m going to drive a knife right into his heart,” said Carr, tearfully recalling his role as one of Brown’s biggest supporters in the locker room before his inevitable betrayal of the increasingly unhinged wide receiver."

[RELATED: AB jabs Steelers over 'Hard Knocks' Pittsburgh viewership]

It's hard to tell fiction from reality sometimes with this team. In this case, yes, it's satire. 

We can all use a good laugh here and there, because, hey who knows what Brown will do next. 

Six undrafted rookies with legitimate shot at Raiders' 53-man roster

Six undrafted rookies with legitimate shot at Raiders' 53-man roster

The Raiders have dealt with one odd occurrence after another this training camp. First, it was Antonio Brown’s frostbitten feet. Then it was the star receiver’s fight to wear a preferred helmet.

This week’s trip to play a home preseason game in Winnipeg was up next, but things got weird when the game was played on an 80-yard field due to turf issues.

Head coach Jon Gruden was asked about that oddity after a 22-21 victory over Green Bay at IG Field. He addressed it quickly, put the field-shortening decision on the Packers and quickly moved on.

“We might have five undrafted players make the team,” Gruden said. “That’s the story most people are missing. I’m going to talk about that, and not about any more distractions.”

Okay, Coach. Let’s talk about that.

Several undrafted free agents have impressed over this preseason. Some have a realistic shot to make the 53-man roster.

Gruden said he might keep five. Maybe, but that seems a smidge high. A pair seems certain. Three or four total seems more likely.

Gruden didn’t identify players in the best position to stick around after final cuts, so let’s take a look the prime candidates and their odds of making the squad.

P A.J. Cole

The North Carolina State product won his position battler early in camp, with Johnny Townsend was waived to create space for additional cornerbacks. That left Cole as the team’s only punter, knowing full well such status wouldn’t last if he tapered off after an excellent start. Cole certainly hasn’t done that. He averaged 42.2 yards per punt, with another one dropped inside the 20-yard line despite playing on an 80-yard field without a typically clear goal line.

Cole has earned the right to start the season as the Raiders punter. He’ll get it come September.

Will he make the 53-man roster?: It’s a lock

DT Anthony Rush

The 340-pound defensive tackle has proven stout on the interior, a consistent run stopper the Raiders have been looking for to plug gaps and minimize gains. He had four more tackles, including one for a loss, and three total that Pro Football Focus says constituted a failed run play against Green Bay. That’s three straight solid performances for the Alabama-Birmingham alum, who has impressed coaches and fans alike since signing up after training camp started.

Will he make the 53-man roster?: Seems likely

WR Keelan Doss

The Alameda native could well end up working his hometown all season after yet another productive preseason game. He has been Nate Peterman’s best friend late in these three preseason games and has 11 catches for 99 yards and a touchdown on 14 targets. Gruden lauds Doss’ versatility and continues to praise this smooth route runner who surprisingly went undrafted.

“He's playing three positions,” Gruden said. “He's over there at split end. He's playing the z. He's playing in the slot. He's playing them all well. I'm happy for him.”

The UC Davis product works in a talented and intensely competitive position group but could emerge with a roster spot over more established veterans. Antonio Brown, Tyrell Williams, Hunter Renfrow and Dwayne Harris are roster locks. Will the Raiders cut either Ryan Grant or J.J. Nelson to make room for Doss? Will Marcell Ateman factor in here? There’s plenty to ponder while making tough choices at receiver.

Will he make the 53-man roster?: Possibly

CB Keisean Nixon

The South Carolina product isn’t here due to recency bias, because he was awesome Thursday night against Green Back. The aggressive cover man has been sound throughout training camp and the preseason, with a penchant for closing separation when the ball’s in the air.

Here’s the proof: Nixon has been targeted 15 times in three preseason games, per PFF, yet has allowed just five receptions for 37 yards. That’s just a 42.4 passer rating against him. That solid play could put him on the 53-man roster to start the season, with a chance to stay there.

Nevin Lawson will serve a four-game suspension for violating the league’s PED policy to start the season, leaving an open spot he could fill early on. He has played better that last year’s fourth-round pick Nick Nelson, who sits firmly on the roster bubble.

The Raiders are also dealing with injuries to rookie draft picks Isaiah Johnson and Trayvon Mullen. If either one lingers into the season, Nixon could be a candidate for regular season playing time.

Will he make the 53-man roster?: Seems likely

FB Alec Ingold

The Wisconsin alum has been steady throughout a preseason where he has received tons of work. Reps have been high with veteran fullback Keith Smith recovering from surgery to repair a torn meniscus, and Ingold has taken full advantage.

He has proven a solid lead blocker with some short-yards rush ability and effectiveness in the passing game. He can play on special teams and has impressed offensive coaches running a system that still needs good fullback play.

Smith, however, will have something to say about Ingold vying for his job. He’s back healthy again and had a strong showing on Thursday to prove he hasn’t lost a step. He’s a core special teams player and violent hitter that coaches like. He isn’t giving up his roster spot without a fight. The fullback decision could come down to the wire, and Ingold might be the odd man out if the Raiders believe he’ll clear waivers and make it to the practice squad.

Will he make the 53-man roster?: Maybe, maybe not

OL Andre James

James played offensive tackle at UCLA, but the Raiders have moved him inside to center. That’s quite a transition, one that he has made well. Gruden has praised James’ efforts at several points this summer. That’s a positive sign for the young offensive lineman battling for a roster spot.

He has played 140 preseason snaps and allowed just three quarterback hurries in 70 pass-blocking snaps. Getting the mental aspects of the position right can be tough, but Gruden said James has taken to it.

A path to the 53-man roster remains cloudy, considering the Raiders are expected to carry Gabe Jackson despite him being out the season’s first four of five games at least.

[RELATED: Raiders can't take much away from preseason game in Canada]

Jordan Devey is expected to replace him at right guard, but he’s a capable backup center as well. That means James might not be needed, especially with the extra depth required at guard. His versatility helps, especially if they only keep three tackles on the roster. There are a lot of variables influencing offensive line construction from Jackson to Denzelle Good’s readiness after back surgery to Richie Incognito’s two-game suspension to start the season. It’s seems set James will stick around on the 53-man roster or the practice squad if the OL shuffle doesn’t shake his way.

Will he make the 53-man roster?: Outlook remains cloudy