Last season saw the Raiders defense at or near the bottom in several categories including giving up an NFL worst 29.2 points per game. They allowed opponents to convert third-down opportunities 46 percent of the time, third worst in the league. Yet, despite their mostly abysmal showing, Gareon Conley’s performance at cornerback has already vaulted him into the upper echelon of premier NFL defensive backs.
After being limited to only two games in his rookie season, Conley quietly strung together an elite 2018 season on the boundary by the numbers.
Sports Info Solutions’ deserved catch rate measures the percentage of catches or drops a primary defender allows on catchable passes. By that metric, Conley is the most efficient defensive back in the NFL.
In 335 pass coverage snaps played across 14 starts and 15 games played, Conley allowed a league-low 59.0 percent deserved catch rate among qualifying defenders. The second lowest rate among cornerbacks came from Patriots’ star Stephon Gilmore at 61.8 percent.
Opposing quarterbacks clearly noticed early on that targeting Conley proved fruitless, as he was only thrown at 42 times all season. Conley gave up 21 total catches and 3 touchdowns on those targets, allowing only 50 percent of passes coming his way to be completed.
Of those 42 targets, Conley intercepted three passes and dropped one sure interception, which means that 9.5 percent of passes thrown his way should have been intercepted.
If we factor in his 13 pass breakups (good for No. 11 in the NFL), Conley heavily contested or intercepted 40.5 percent of passes thrown his way.
In week two of the 2018 season alone, Conley set the tone for his low-key breakout, registering four pass breakups against the Broncos and striking fear into quarterback Case Keenum.
Conley’s size (6-foot, 195 pounds), speed (4.44-second 40-yard dash) and arm length (33 inches, 95th percentile among cornerbacks) contribute to his ability to beat receivers to the ball. But his innate timing and route recognition transcend his measurables.
In a division with Patrick Mahomes and Phillip Rivers, having a corner who can lock down one side of the field completely is key. And considering Conley’s elite pass coverage numbers last year, it is amazing to think about how poorly the Raiders defense would have performed without him.
His pass coverage is already elite by the metrics, but Conley doubles up on top-tier skills as a sure-tackler. He made 36 tackles on defense last season and didn’t allow a single broken or missed tackle all year, per Sports Info Solutions.
That makes him an ideal boundary corner, as someone who can lock down backside receivers mano a mano opposite a trips formation, or come up and stuff the run when needed.
Conley is still training hard to improve on the small things, and says that practicing against a superstar like Antonio Brown is helping him to take his game up another notch.
“Every time I get a chance to go against him, I try to go against him,” Conley said during the first week of training camp. “Always ask him questions about winning breaks and just what he’s doing at the line, down the field or how he plays against receivers. It’s going to make me better in the long run.”
While Brown has mostly been a distraction thus far over the summer, his presence in one-on-one drills gives Conley an invaluable look at how to capably defend an elite receiver.
As the Raiders try to assemble a competent defense in 2019, they know they have an elite young piece to build around in the secondary. Conley is already an elite cornerback in the NFL. Now, it’s time for his fellow defensive backs to try to follow suit.