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.”

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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.”

Brian Billick says Mike Mayock has to get used to Jon Gruden cussing him out


Brian Billick says Mike Mayock has to get used to Jon Gruden cussing him out

Raiders general manager Mike Mayock has never worked in an NFL front office, but that's not the only thing he will have to get used to, at least according to an ex-NFL head coach.

"On a daily basis, he has to get used to the fact that Jon's gonna come into the office and motherf--k him," Brian Billick told Bleacher Report's Mike Tanier. 

But Billick, a current NFL Network analyst who was a colleague of Mayock's while he was the outlet's draft expert, thinks Mayock will be able to hold his own in his relationship with Gruden. The Super Bowl-winning coach called Mayock "as good of an evaluator of talent as I have been around." 

"He does the work, he grinds the tape, he goes to workouts," Billick told Tanier. "He knows what talent is."

Gruden and Mayock's dynamic is unique, to say the least. Not only is Mayock a first-time executive, but the head coach ultimately has final say over the Raiders' personnel decisions. 

On top of that, the Silver and Black enter a critical offseason. After trading away Khalil Mack and Amari Cooper last year, the Raiders are armed with three picks in the first round of the 2019 NFL Draft. They also have more salary-cap space than all but six teams, according to Over The Cap.

Yet success can't be expected overnight, according to Billick. Mayock will have to develop as an executive and surround himself with the right staff, Billick said, and that takes time.

"Putting that infrastructure around him, he's not had to do that before," Billick said. "How's the scouting department going to work? Who will do what? What's the interaction going to be?"

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He will have to learn on the job, but time is a luxury that Raiders fans in the Bay Area don't necessarily have. The team is in conversations to spend one final season at the Oakland Coliseum in 2019, but the Raiders intend to complete their move to Las Vegas in time for the 2020 season.

Gruden spoke about wanting to give Oakland fans "two of the best years of football that I can possibly help deliver" when he took the job last January.

The first was a 4-12 season highlighted by the trades of two former first-round picks. If the Raiders are going to improve upon that in 2019, Mayock will have to learn a lot very quickly. 

NFL free agency: Why Le'Veon Bell to Raiders could be perfect signing


NFL free agency: Why Le'Veon Bell to Raiders could be perfect signing

Finally, Le'Veon Bell will get his wish and become a free agent

Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert told local reporters the team will not place a franchise or transition tag on Bell this offseason. The two-time All-Pro running back sat out the entire 2018 season while in contract disputes with the team. 

"Le'Veon is still a great player," Colbert said. "We can't afford to use any other type of tags. Le'Veon will be an unrestricted free agent at the start of the new league year."

Bell appeared to be pretty happy about the decision.

Bell declined to sign a franchise tender last year, turning down $14.5 million as he held out the entire season. 

Now that he will be a free agent, Bell certainly won't remain a Steeler. Could he join the Raiders, though? 

Bleacher Report's Matt Miller thinks he could be a good fit.

Bell certainly does fit all three phases for the Raiders -- need, money and big name. Let's start with need. 

The Raiders' top two running backs from last season -- Doug Martin and Marshawn Lynch -- are both unrestricted free agents. Both are also over 30 years old, and have nowhere near Bell's talent. And the team's third-leading rusher, Jalen Richard, is a restricted free agent. 

When Bell, who just turned 27, last played in 2017, he rushed for 1,291 yards and nine touchdowns. The Raiders' trio previously mentioned combined for fewer than 100 more yards rushing in 2018. Plus, Bell is a threat as a receiver as well -- he has 2,660 career receiving yards, too. 

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Secondly, the money. Bell wants to get paid, and the Raiders have the cash to do so. They will have roughly $81 million in salary cap space this offseason, with plenty of holes to fill on the roster. 

Lastly, the star power. The Raiders could certainly use and Bell certainly has it. Year 1 of Jon Gruden's return didn't go as planned.

To turn things around and kick off their move to Vegas in 2020, Bell could be the perfect player as the new face of their franchise.