Gareon Conley

Raiders CB Gareon Conley has confidence back after frustrating rookie year

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AP

Raiders CB Gareon Conley has confidence back after frustrating rookie year

ALAMEDA – Gareon Conley has a healthy resume. He doesn’t have a track record of ailments, no physical issues chronically keeping him out of games at Ohio State or in high school.

As a matter of fact, he didn’t miss a game with injury as a Buckeye.

That’s why his first season with the Raiders was so frustrating. The 2017 first round draft pick got kicked in the shin during last June’s mandatory minicamp, and it took nearly a full year to feel right again.

Conley hoped rest and rehab would do the trick. It didn’t. It eventually required surgery, which occurred once he was formally placed on season-ending injured reserve.

“It just lingered,” Conley said. “We thought it would get better by taking reps off, but it just kept getting worse, so I just fixed it.”

The rehab process was painstakingly slow for someone looking to push it during this offseason program. Conley remained as patient as possible, and finally got a green light for OTAs and this week’s minicamp.

Conley spoke publicly on Tuesday for the first time since September, admitting the 2017 season was hard to handle.

“It was really difficult, because I’ve never been hurt,” Conley said. “It was like the first time that I’ve really been hurt and where I’ve missed time. Mentally, that’s just the hardest thing. But, I feel like I’ve gotten my confidence back and I feel good.”

That in itself is a major step. Conley’s confidence has grown working with secondary coach Derrick Ansley, improving the mental aspect of his game. There’s no doubting his talent. Conley’s a smooth, agile cover man who makes hard look easy and has many believing a big year’s ahead.

The optimism is welcome, especially after a long run of disappointment when he shin didn’t heal right.

“It has been a dark world that he’s been in, this young man,” Raiders head coach Jon Gruden said. “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 No. 1 overall.”

Conley believes he has grown mentally as is better equipped to handle setbacks after last year’s trials. He learned to rely on himself, even with family, friends and teammates available to get through tough times.

“I feel like what I learned is that there are people there for you, but at the end of the day you have to be there for yourself,” Conley said. “You’re the only one that can mentally prepare yourself to come back from something.”

Conley had someone to lean on in the locker room, someone who could identify with his struggles. Karl Joseph faced similar, though not identical circumstances the year before. The Raiders’ 2016 first-round pick started his professional career rehabbing from an ACL tear, and was behind the curve at every stage.

Dealing with injury amid a high draft slot’s lofty expectations, isn’t always easy. Joseph understood that. He lived it, too.

“I just know how hard it is coming in as a high draft pick, first round,” Joseph said. “We battled through some injuries and I told him to keep his head up, keep fighting through it. 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.”

Conley’s ready to meet high expectations in 2018. He has the talent to be a No. 1 cornerback, even with Rashaan Melvin assuming that title to start the season. Conley fits in well with Paul Guenther’s scheme, which asks corners to play lots of press-man coverage as he did at Ohio State.

He is excited to play with Melvin, Daryl Worley and other new members of the secondary, who are working together well under Ansley.

“There’s no blaming and complaining,” Conley said. “We handle ours and take responsibility for everything. We hold everybody accountable to the highest standard.”

Raiders give Conley green light, Melifonwu 'doesn't look close at all'

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USATSI

Raiders give Conley green light, Melifonwu 'doesn't look close at all'

The Raiders have been cautious with Gareon Conley’s return from shin surgery. The cornerback’s clearance turned from red to yellow earlier in the offseason program, but finally went green in time to start the OTAs.

Last year’s first-round pick was reportedly a first-team cover man during the Raiders first OTA session on Tuesday. It was one of three open to the media.

The Raiders plan for him to be there throughout the regular season, and believe he has the makings of a No. 1 cornerback.

Head coach Jon Gruden has been excited to see the Ohio State product in action, as part of cornerback corps also featuring Rashaan Melvin and Daryl Worley.

“Yeah, it’s great to see Conley out there,” Gruden said after Tuesday’s OTA session. “We’re counting on him. We need him. But to see Rashaan Melvin and Conley and [Daryl] Worley competing is really exciting.

Conley was impressive during his first offseason program, until he hurt his shin during the team’s June 2017 minicamp. Conley barely played after that, with two games action and a handful of limited practices. He had surgery to repair his shin in Nov. 2017, and was eased back into action somewhat.

Conley doesn’t have an injury history save last year’s mishap, and could have a real impact if he remains healthy and continues to progress.

“Conley is special,” Gruden said. “He’s a top pick in this draft for a reason. I think from a confidence standpoint, he needs to get some work in out here.”

The player Oakland selected after Conley last year still hasn’t been cleared to work. Safety Obi Melifonwu wasn’t able to participate in Tuesday’s team drills, the first time this offseason offense and defense can play against each other.

The UConn product missed last season’s first half recovering from arthroscopic knee surgery, and then needed hip surgery after the season. He still isn’t ready for a return.

“It doesn’t look close at all,” Gruden said. “I’ll leave it at that. He doesn’t look close, to me, at all.”

Physical issues are problematic for a player looking to earn a role on the team. The team is stocked at safety, with Karl Joseph, Reggie Nelson and Marcus Gilchrist leading the way.

“He doesn’t look ready to roll yet,” Gruden said. “So, I don’t let anybody practice without being able to go physically. He doesn’t look like he’s 100 percent. I haven’t seen much of Obi except in the training room.”

NOTES

-- Khalil Mack was not present for the start of voluntary OTAs, as expected. The elite edge rusher has missed the entire offseason program to this point, withholding services while waiting for a big-money contract extension the the Raiders have budgeted to give him. 

-- Gruden said receiver Amari Cooper is dealing with a hamstring injury.

-- Left tackle Donald Penn is working his way back from foot surgery, and participated in individual drills on Tuesday. He was held back during team sessions, leaving David Sharpe to take first-team reps at left tackle. Breno Giacomini manned the first-team right tackle spot.

-- Rookies Kolton Miller (left tackle) and Brandon Parker (right tackle) worked with reserve units at this stage. Gruden was impressed with how both players absorbed the offense.

-- Fourth-round cornerback Nick Nelson remains out recovering from meniscus surgery. As previously reported, he’s expected back for training camp.

-- The Raiders are planning to have training camp practices against another team, but Gruden didn’t want to reveal the opponent until arrangements are finalized.

Conley, Melvin should lead improved Raiders CB corps

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USATSI/AP

Conley, Melvin should lead improved Raiders CB corps

Raiders defensive backs engaged in an interception drill during some of the offseason program’s on-field work, and the volley aimed at Gareon Conley sailed pretty high.

Last year’s first-round pick jumped up and caught it at full stretch, an action captured by a Raiders team photographer and posted on social media.

That sight, and head coach Jon Gruden’s statement that Conley’s ever-so-close to full clearance following shin surgery allowed Raider Nation to dream about the Ohio State product featuring prominently in the Silver and Black secondary.

That didn’t happen much last year, when a shin injury suffered during the 2017 minicamp stole most of Conley’s rookie season.

Conley’s a natural cover man, and Raiders brass believes he can be a standout member of a revamped cornerback corps.

They’ve overhauled the position group before, several times in fact. Results have been lackluster.

There’s a real chance for better this season. On paper, anyway.

We haven’t seen much of the 2018 Raiders this offseason, save stretching and individual drills on two occasions. We don’t have much to go on during this quiet time in the NFL calendar, but the talent’s there.

This position group should look much different in 2018, with a chance to show far better results.

Conley should be a feature member of the cornerback corps, and still might not be the No. 1 guy. Rashaan Melvin should take that mantle, and is comfortable covering top receivers.

The 28-year old is coming off a career year, and will be supremely motivated playing on a one-year, prove-it deal. Opposing passers had a 60.3 quarterback rating a paltry 52.3 completion percentage when targeting Melvin’s man.

Those numbers would offer a vast upgrade over last year’s cornerback corps, which featured Sean Smith, TJ Carrie, Dexter McDonald and an oft-injured David Amerson.

Unlike last year, the Raiders have some injury insurance. Daryl Worley will provide help, maybe more than that, in his first season in silver and black. The 23-year old has started 25 games in two professional seasons, with a career 94.8 passer rating against him.

Off-field concerns make him a wild card. He was arrested on suspicion of DUI and for resisting arrest, which got him released by Philadelphia. The NFL could impose a suspension for the incident, which is still working through the legal process.

The combination of Conley, Melvin and Worley is an on-paper upgrade over the Raiders’ 2017 crew.

“We think Rashaan Melvin can be a really good player,” Raiders head coach Jon Gruden said on April 24. “We think Conley can be a really good player if healthy. We have a lot of competition right now behind him, and usually that breeds success.”

The Raiders added another corner in fourth-round pick Nick Nelson, a Wisconsin product recovering from meniscus surgery. He should be ready by training camp, and could help fill a void in the slot created by TJ Carrie’s departure.

Gruden wanted Carrie back, but Cleveland lured him away with significant funds. None of the three main cornerbacks have played much in the slot – Conley can play anywhere – but safety Marcus Gilchrist has the versatility and prowess to play there.

Veteran Leon Hall has experience there and in coordinator Paul Guenther’s scheme, from their time together in Cincinnati.

Nelson can play inside and out, meaning competition for slot options snaps should be stiff.

If Melvin reprises last year’s form and a healthy Conley can realize potential, the Raiders cornerback corps could be much better in 2018.