Opening day of 2016 was a great game between the evenly-matched New Orleans Saints and Oakland Raiders. Both teams were explosive on offense and didn’t have much of a defense. So the Raiders won the game because they had the ball last.
Anything can happen when you’re in shootouts every week like both teams were. The Raiders went 12-4 because they were clutch on defense while the Saints finished 7-9. This year, the Saints are 8-2 with a much improved defense while the Raiders are 4-6.
The Saints picked former Ohio State cornerback Marshawn Lattimore at No. 11 overall while the Raiders took Gareon Conley, also of Ohio State, at No. 24 overall. Conley was also projected to go in the top half of the first round before rape allegations ruined it.
Draft experts were divided on who was the better prospect after Conley gave up a quarterback rating of just 14. They all expected both to have immediate impacts and great careers. In turn both the Saints and Raiders were projected to get better on defense after drafting their future shutdown corners.
Thus far only Lattimore is having such an impact and is on pace to win 2017 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. He has helped Saints pass defense go from dead last in the league in 2016 to No. 9 now. Overall, the Saints defense went from No. 20 in the NFL to No. 13. And with the offense still intact, they’re on top of the NFC South right now.
For all the issues the Raiders have now, the defense is still their biggest weakness. It didn’t get better at all while Conley played in two games, one healthy, before going on injured reserve. The Raiders were No. 24 against the pass and No. 26 overall in 2016. And right now, they’re No. 26 against the pass and No. 27 overall.
In his only healthy game, against the New York Jets, Conley great skills in man coverage. He showed the speed, hips, feet and length needed to be a great NFL corner. According to Pro Football Focus, he allowed just one catch for eight yards on two targets and 28 snaps in coverage.
For one game, he showed the potential to do everything for the Raiders that Lattimore is doing for the Saints. His coverage allows the defense to blitz and the pass rush to get there. It also allows the defense to put an eighth man in the box to help stop the run and the defense can get off the field.
The Raiders will have to wait until next year to see that kind of impact from Conley. His absence has left them with essentially the same defense they fielded last season. They have to roll with whomever they have healthy for the rest of this season with. Which right now is not much.