In the end, what saved Gareon Conley in the 2017 NFL draft was everything that happened before April 9. Conley played 41 games at Ohio State as a physical cornerback and a clinging cover man, with the football intellect of a five-year NFL vet. These were the qualities that had made Conley a first-round lock as NFL teams finalized their draft boards this spring. When the San Francisco 49ers’ brain trust left the combine in Indianapolis in early March, they agreed that of the 60 players the team interviewed there, Conley was the most impressive.
Then came his encounter in a Cleveland hotel in the early hours of April 9, news of which emerged on the Tuesday before the draft. According to a police report, a 23-year-old woman claimed she was raped by Conley in his hotel room that night, an allegation that Conley vehemently denied. Police are still investigating the incident. Conley, who had been a likely mid-first-round pick, seemed to be in limbo, because the probe was not going to be finished before the draft.
And so it was stunning, in this environment of heightened attention by NFL teams to domestic violence and sexual assault, to see Conley chosen with the 24th overall pick on Thursday night, by the Oakland Raiders. The 124th would have been understandable. But the 24th? In this climate?
“I understand the issues involved,” Oakland GM Reggie McKenzie, the reigning NFL executive of the year, told me late Thursday night. “But we did our research, and we read all the reports, and we did more than our due diligence. After all the information we got, we were comfortable with making this choice and confident in who this player is.”
McKenzie would not comment on Thursday night’s NFL Network report that Conley passed a lie-detector test. Later, ESPN reported it was the Baltimore Ravens that actually ordered the polygraph. In fact, the story behind the Ravens getting the test was still unfolding early this morning.
It turns out that Ravens officials didn’t decide to try to administer the polygraph to Conley until midday Thursday. The team found a firm in northeast Ohio, PolyTech Associates, to conduct the test, which was administered late Thursday afternoon to Conley, who is from Massilon, Ohio. On Thursday evening, this email was sent to teams in the league, through an agent for Conley, from William D. Evans, an attorney who is listed on the PolyTech masthead:
“I just completed the polygraph examination of Mr. Conley; a formal report will follow. Regarding the sexual assault allegations stemming from the reported incident of 4-8/9-17 at the Westin in Cleveland, it is my opinion he did not commit the sexual assault as alleged, thus is telling you the truth in his version of fact.’’
Polygraph tests are not universally accepted in the scientific or legal community in determining guilt or innocence. It’s uncertain how much, or whether, the test by Conley played a role in the Raiders’ decision. “I don’t want to get into the specifics of what was done or what wasn’t done,’’ McKenzie said. “I can tell you that if our due diligence had turned out the other way, we would not have picked the player.”
Conley told reporters Thursday night he was confident he would be cleared, and referred to the results of the polygraph. “I took a test today that helps,’’ he said. Certainly it would have been a negative to some teams if Conley had refused to take the test, but the test didn’t clear him in the eyes of all NFL teams.
McKenzie is taking a gamble, obviously, but when he spoke after the draft, he sounded certain about Conley the person, and certain of his innocence.
I asked him if he understood what a stunning moment this was in the draft, and whether he’d heard from his peers about the pick. “Actually, no,” McKenzie said. “I haven’t spoken to a lot of my peers, but that doesn’t matter. The people who know me know that I’m a man of character. I have two daughters. I have two sons too … I want the truth. I want the truth to show itself.”
The Raiders got a very good prospect in Conley, and it’s uncertain how long it will take for the case to wind through the investigative process by Cleveland police. But one thing is clear: Conley felt the Raiders threw him a lifeline Thursday night.
“When they called,” Conley said, “it was the best moment of my life. Just to know they have faith in me, not just as a football player but as a person, speaks highly of them, and I really appreciate it.”
“You could feel the thankfulness in his voice,” McKenzie said.
There were stunners all over one of the most surprising first rounds in years. Chicago trading up to pick quarterback Mitchell Trubisky after signing free-agent quarterback Mike Glennon … The 49ers getting one of their three top-rated players, linebacker Reuben Foster, with the 31st pick … The Chiefs trading two number one picks for a work-in-progress quarterback, Pat Mahomes, and Houston doing the same for Deshaun Watson … Off-field concerns pushing Florida State running back Dalvin Cook out of the round and into the draft’s second day today … The big receivers going early, at five (Corey Davis), seven (Mike Williams) and nine (John Ross) … The oddity of two Stanford players going in the top eight, and no Alabama players going in the top 15 … And 12 defenders in key pass-defense roles (seven rushers, five corners) going in the top 30.
But the lingering story of the first round, at least until police in northeast Ohio finish their work on the case of what happened in the Cleveland Westin early on April 9, will be the legal status of the Raiders’ first-round pick.
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