As you might have noticed, we’ve been scouting defensive backs pretty heavily over the last month in preparation for the NFL Draft.
Sticking with that theme, today we’ll be looking at an early possibility at the position for the Bills in Ohio State cornerback Gareon Conley.
Conley has spent his life in central Ohio, growing up in Massillon before playing three seasons at Ohio State. Interestingly, Conley’s first commitment was to rival Michigan, an allegiance he abandoned once he learned Ohio State was interested.
Conley was a three-star recruit out of Massillon Washington High School, the number 50 cornerback in the 2013 recruiting class.
Conley had a great showing at the Combine. He ran a 4.44 40-yard dash (11th among CBs), turned in a 37-inch vertical (7th), and ran the three-cone drill in 6.68 (t-3rd). He didn’t run at Ohio State’s Pro Day last month, but did participate in position drills.
Those numbers are a good indicator of how he plays on the field. He’s not a physical marvel, but he’ll definitely be able to hold his own in the NFL. At a clean 6 feet and 195 pounds, he has the size that teams are looking for at the position.
Ohio State ran a mix of zone and man coverages last year. Conley was noticeably better playing in zone (which the Bills should be playing plenty of moving forward), whereas he struggled in man situations.
Here he is matched up against Clemson’s Mike Williams in the Fiesta Bowl last season:
All it took was a simple double move for Williams to blow by him. Only an overthrown ball from Deshaun Watson prevented this from being a touchdown. Williams is a high-end receiver, but he’s the kind of guy Conley would be expected to cover if a team were to take him, say, tenth overall.
Here’s another one, against Penn State’s Chris Godwin earlier in the season.
Conley does a good job of staying with Godwin, a likely Day 2 pick in this year’s draft. However, once Godwin gains inside leverage Conley is unable to recover. He can’t even position himself to make a play on the ball, instead trying to interfere with Godwin’s arm (a borderline legal play that could easily get him flagged at the next level).
Here he is on a better day, matching up against Indiana’s Donavan Hale:
Conley easily keeps pace with Hale and is able to position himself to make a play on the ball. He isn’t able to come up with the pick, but he made sure Hale never had a reasonable chance to make the catch. He’d most likely be starting his NFL career going against guys who are better than that, but if he can use his speed to keep pace with them he won’t be a liability as a rookie.
Meanwhile, here’s a look at a zone coverage play against Wisconsin:
Conley drops straight back into his zone, but once Alex Hornibrook uncorks a floater he’s able to break on the ball, adjust on the run, and come up with the interception. He’s able to put his rock solid instincts against the pass to use in the zone a lot better than he can in man coverage, where he’ll be overmatched by the bigger, more physical receivers he’s liable to see in the NFL.
This is the area where Conley established himself as a possible Day 1 pick. He has a real nose for the ball, and his 2016 totals of four interceptions and eight pass defenses are right on par with his more-heralded teammate, Marshon Lattimore (four picks and nine passes defended).
Here’s a look at one of those passes, from the opening minutes of the Fiesta Bowl against Clemson:
While it helps that Williams slips and isn’t a factor in the play, you can still see Conley is capable of playing the ball almost like a wide receiver. He tracks it in the air, actively catches it around helmet-level, and maintains possession as he falls out of bounds. More importantly, he was ready to make the play.
Here’s another play from the Wisconsin game, with Conley matched up against Badgers senior wideout Robert Wheelwright in the closing minutes of a tied game.
Conley tracks the ball in the air, does what he can to keep the receiver out of the play, and makes a well-timed jump to make a one-handed interceptions (which was overturned on review, but still a great play).
This is the area that’s really kept Conley off the upper end of most mock drafts, and in some cases out of the first round entirely. He has great awareness on passing plays, but when it comes to the run, well...
Here’s a play from the Penn State game that illustrates what I’m talking about:
I mean, what is that? If he breaks on the run even a second sooner, the run goes for no more than eight yards. Instead, it went for 37. The Nittany Lions were in the end zone three plays later en route to a 24-21 comeback victory.
As far as his actual tackling form, well, that leaves a lot to be desired as well. Here he is trying to wrap up a runner behind the line in that same game:
Conley’s aggressive pursuit left him out of position to make a decent tackle, and he’s left trying to wrap the running back up with his arm. For someone who only managed 11 reps on the bench at the Combine, that’s probably not going to work too often. He does slow the runner down, but what should have been a two yard loss ends up going for a one yard gain.
Conley has been pegged as a probable first-round pick and a Day 1 starter at cornerback. I’ll buy that, assuming the team he goes to primarily uses zone coverage. He put up some solid workout numbers, but when he matched up against the top wideouts in college last year he failed to stand out.
Could he end up in Buffalo? He’d be a great fit in Sean McDermott’s defense, but he’s not a future shutdown corner. I’d have trouble justifying picking Conley tenth overall; if the Bills move down to the 17-24 range, he’s a possible target, and if he somehow lasts to 44 I wouldn’t think twice about taking him. He’d immediately become the number two corner on the team behind Ronald Darby, which wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world for the Bills in 2017.