2017 NFL draft prospect countdown, No. 31: Gareon Conley, CB, Ohio State
With 13 starts under his belt, Conley entered 2016 as a veteran member of Ohio State’s young secondary. He stayed in the starting lineup the entire year, finishing with eight pass break-ups and four picks, including an interception of Clemson’s Deshaun Watson in the College Football Playoff semifinals, on his second snap of the Fiesta Bowl. Conley also had a pair of picks during his redshirt sophomore season in ’15. He was named second-team All-Big Ten by the conference’s coaches this past year. Conley initially committed to play at Michigan, then changed his mind and signed with Ohio State after the Buckeyes hired Urban Meyer.
Strengths: Conley ran a 4.44-second 40-yard dash and a blazing fast 6.68 three-cone at the combine, and that quickness shows up in his coverage. He stays right in receivers’ hip pockets down the field, with enough speed to turn and run up the sideline.
Because of how adept he is at finding the football, Conley can play in a variety of schemes or alignments. His interception of Watson came when he was lined up in the slot, against likely first-round pick Mike Williams. He caught a little bit of a break when Williams slipped making a cut on an out route, but Conley was all over that route regardless. Conley also is not afraid to bail off his initial assignment to make a play behind him—a plus for zone-heavy teams.
Conley can plant and fire downhill, which (with a little better tackling) would make him even more valuable in off coverage. And it should allow him to be a sneaky good blitzer, if his NFL team wants to turn him loose on occasion. He did not have a sack this past season, but he should have had one of Watson in the title game—he exploded untouched through a gap up front, only to bounce off Watson in the pocket.
Weaknesses: The missed sack against Watson highlighted perhaps the most pressing issue for Conley: He needs to be even more physical. He has the footwork to mirror receivers off the line, so he doesn’t necessarily have to jam them, but it’s an approach he could put to use more than he does. His lack of a physical presence, though, is more of an issue against the run and on screens his direction. To wit: Clemson’s 180-pound receiver Ray-Ray McCloud buried Conley with a block on the edge. Teams appeared to target him at times, rather than go at Marshon Lattimore.
Conley is outstanding working outside the numbers. He’s not as crisp when teams challenge him toward the middle of the field, in part because he does tend to allow those free releases.
NFL player comparison: Desmond Trufant