One week after bringing in his first pick-six of his young career and aiding in his team’s first win of the season, Gareon Conley was unceremoniously benched in favor of former third-round pick, Carolina Panther and Philadelphia Eagle, Daryl Worley.
Asked about the benching, head coach Jon Gruden said this,
“Gareon had a couple struggles yesterday. We’re trying to find the right mix. We’re trying to find the right mix at a lot of positions.”
Well, if coach Gruden would like to thin the crowd a little bit, Tampa Bay should be the first team at the door to negotiate a deal.
Following the benching and the comments by his defensive coordinator today, I went back to look at whether or not Conley was deserving of the benching or not, and also to develop my opinion as to whether or not I’d like the Bucs to take a deeper look themselves.
To do this, I watched the following games:
- Raiders v Jets (Week 2, 2017) PFF Grade: 83.6
- Raiders v Redskins (Week 3, 2017) PFF Grade: 55.6
- Raiders v Rams (Week 1, 2018) PFF Grade: 47.4
- Raiders v Dolphins (Week 3, 2018) PFF Grade: 72.3
- *Raiders v Chargers (Week 5, 2018) PFF Grade: 46.9
*Played 12 defensive snaps in Week 5 against Chargers
So here’s what I saw.
Conley is a long cornerback with good speed and the ability to play well in man or zone coverage. Definitely looks more comfortable in press man, but has the instincts and field vision to be successful in zone.
He’s demonstrated the ability to run downfield with receivers while also tracking the ball in order to make a play. As he gets older and more developed, some of his pass breakups should turn into potential interceptions.
Plays smart and with patience against the run. He’s an ankle tackler, preferring to trip up ball carriers rather than square up against them. When attacked on the perimeter against a running back, he’ll often put himself in a contain position which can be viewed as avoiding contact or funneling the action back in to his teammates like linebackers who generally enjoy the hitting part a bit more than your average cornerback.
Has mostly lined up on the right side of the defense, but is capable of playing either outside corner position, and has lined up in the slot on a couple of plays.
When covering receivers, Conley has solid ability to change direction, but can be knocked off balance at times by receivers who attack him more physically or eat his cushion faster than anticipated.
Earlier this week, Los Angeles Chargers defensive coordinator Paul Guenther called Conley, “Basically a rookie..”
And he’s not wrong in the experience department. Conley just played in his seventh career NFL game. He appeared in two last season before being lost for the year to a shin injury, and then in the first five of this season.
I’m not sure how this leads to his being benched for a third-year cornerback who was first traded from the Carolina Panthers – not exactly known for their secondary in recent years – and then released from the team who traded for him following his arrest near the Philadelphia Eagles’ team facility.
What he doesn’t have, is the production. Worley has three career interceptions and nineteen passes defended in 32 career games.
Even with the small amount Conley got on the field in Week 5, he’s on pace to deflect eighteen passes and have three interceptions this year alone. Now, I’m not saying he would actually get that many, it’s a projection.
Conley struggled against the Chargers though….
Let’s look at this. The second-year corner started the game for the Raiders and as the Chargers drove down field on their way to what would be their first three points of the game, Conley only played a pivotal role on one play.
Nearing scoring position, Los Angeles ran running back Melvin Gordon to Conley’s side of the field.
Conley had two choices. Try and get in position for a tackle by pushing inside on his receiver or keep his outside position and force Gordon inside and closer to his teammates in pursuit. He chose the latter. I ask you, do you really want your longer than big cornerback giving up the corner in an attempt to tackle one of the league’s more agile running backs in the red zone? I don’t.
Gordon went inside, and was tackled. Yes, it was a big gain, but it wasn’t a scoring play. The Raiders defense held, and the Chargers walked away with three points on their opening drive.
This occurred around the twelve-minute mark in the first quarter. The next time I saw Conley on the field for a defensive snap was when there was 8:38 remaining in the second quarter.
He played three defensive snaps, and the Chargers went three-and-out. I didn’t see him again until there was 1:05 left in the third quarter.
I’m sure most of you have seen the touchdown catch and run by Austin Ekeler. If not, you should. The rookie – actual rookie – take a screen pass and freezes two unblocked Raiders defenders to free himself up for a 44-yard score.
One of those defenders was Daryl Worley. The guy who replaced Conley. The guy with more experience. Not “basically a rookie”.
Now, I’m not claiming Conley is perfect. Far from it. As evidenced by this play.
I saw the Raiders run this coverage plenty of times watching the five games I did. Safety Marcus Gilchrist is responsible for the underneath route while Conley is supposed to follow the deep man. He didn’t.
Conley got sucked in by the short route and realized his mistake too late. By the time he caught up to Tyrell Williams, the Chargers had gone from inside their own five to the Oakland 48-yard line.
There’s something impressive you can find in this gaff though too. When Conley realizes his mistake and peels off to pursue Williams he’s a good five-yards behind the receiver running full speed downfield. By the time the ball lands, Conley is on top of him. Not enough to break up the pass, but enough to keep a big mistake from turning into a bigger scoring play.
This is important, because on the very next play the Chargers were flagged for holding and set back ten more yards. Conley was pulled, and Worley re-entered the game and would play out the drive.
Los Angeles would total 25-yards in penalties on the drive following this play. And score a touchdown.
The entire defense struggled often against the Chargers. Not just Worley, and not just Conley. All of them.
However, it would be hard to argue having a guy allowing the fifth-lowest QBR in the league when thrown against on the field wouldn’t have helped.
Honestly, my gut says this is less about Conley and more about Worley. The Raiders want Worley on the field.
Conley has defended many more plays than he’s surrendered. He’s played in man, in zone, on the left, on the right and he’s done all of it successfully.
He’s also made mistakes all young defenders will make from time-to-time. Let’s not forget, even Marshon Lattimore has fallen on his face on occasion.
In the five games I watched, the play against Williams was the only one where Conley was simply not where he was supposed to be. I’m sure there are others, I didn’t watch every game.
But it’s a pretty good sampling and I’m confident now as much as everyone was entering the 2017 NFL Draft, Conley is an NFL corner, and a solid one at that.
Gruden, Guenther and the Raiders don’t seem to be willing to let their young corner learn and develop on the field of play.
And if they’re so inclined, I’d say it would be in the interest of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to at least place a call to see if the team is willing to talk trade.
We’ve seen the Bucs lose faith in defensive backs only to see them go to other teams and thrive. Perhaps it’s time we see the team bring one of those stories onto the roster themselves.
Should the Buccaneers kick the tires on a trade for Gareon Conley?
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