We’re well underway on our deep dive into the 2017 cornerback class, which began with Dallas Cowboys CB Chidobe Awuzie and most recently featured Baltimore Ravens CB Marlon Humphrey. These two were interesting to compare. Humphrey’s versatile physical profile and intense familiarity within Baltimore’s system gave him the rare ability to kick inside to the slot without a drop-off in play; Awuzie, meanwhile, could benefit from a move to the slot because he has proven ill-suited to a role on the outside in press coverage, given his lack of ideal length, recovery speed, and success as an off-coverage click-and-close specialist. Humphrey’s talent exceeded that of his system, letting him move around freely within the Baltimore defense; Awuzie’s talent is yet unearthed, as he’s being held back by the system.
That same sentiment was long true for our next cornerback: ex-Raider and current Houston Texan Gareon Conley. Conley missed nearly all of his rookie season with a shin injury, but when he played for the Raiders in 2019 and in the first half of 2020, he was miscast in the defense. Paul Guenther, brought in when Conley was drafted in 2018, has called more zone coverage than league average dating back to his time coordinating the defense in Cincinnati. When in man coverage, he often had corners bailing into cushion.
This frequently put Conley where he doesn’t like: off the line of scrimmage and reacting to the play. Conley was leashed, his natural aggressiveness curbed, and mirroring ability was lost. Across the seven games he played for the Raiders in 2020, Conley surrendered 18 receptions on 26 targets (69.2% completion rate), including four touchdowns (fifth-worst in the league) and a 126.0 passer rating (14th-worst in the league). He didn’t have talent in off alignments, and it showed.
There is an interesting note here about the Raiders’ cornerbacks overall. They added Daryl Worley in free agency as one of their permanent starters and drafted Trayvon Mullen out of Clemson as a top-40 pick in the 2019 NFL Draft—both were at their best at the line of scrimmage in their previous experiences, and neither was put there in Oakland last season. This year, anticipating the departure of Worley in free agency and having lost Conley in trade to the Texans, they spent a first-round pick on Damon Arnette, another Ohio State corner with a ton of experience in press coverage. There seems to be a disconnect between the front office and the coaching staff regarding the mold of cornerback that will be successful in Las Vegas.
Lucky for Conley, he got out. After struggling to deliver on his first-round draft capital in 23 healthy games with the Raiders, the front office decided to cut their losses and send him to Houston, returning a third-round draft pick that would become the 91st overall selection.
The move was an appropriate swing for the fences in Houston. Of their 2018 starters, they let Shareece Wright walk in free agency and cut Aaron Colvin after just one week of 2019 play. Opposite Johnathon Joseph and slot specialist Bradley Roby, they hoped to install 2019 second-round Lonnie Johnson, who they selected far earlier than draft media expected when they snagged him with the 54th overall pick. But Johnson struggled in early-season play and the otherwise sound Houston defense was bleeding in the secondary even before Joseph, Roby, and Phillip Gaines all started missing time with injury.
So add Conley, the miscast early-rounder with something to prove—and start him right away, against his old team! Conley was acquired by the Texans on Monday, October 21 and was thrust into a starting role six days later against Houston’s Week 8 opponent, the Raiders.
Conley immediately started playing better—and I mean immediately. He matched his seven-week total for passes defensed (2) in that Raiders game alone, including a critical third-down PBU late to help ice a comeback win. He played 100% of the snaps over the next three weeks as Roby returned from injury, becoming the permanent outside corner in a rotation of himself, Roby, and free agent acquisition Vernon Hargreaves as the Texans pushed into the playoffs.
Even though he wasn’t entrenched as a starter, Conley was arguably the best Houston CB over the home stretch of the season. After joining the Texans, Conley allowed 26 catches on 59 targets (a 44.1% completion percentage, down from 69.2% in Oakland), two touchdowns, and a 73.6 passer rating when targeted (down from 126.0). Among the Houston defensive backs, none had a better snaps/reception rate than Conley’s 12.9, and among all defensive backs, only four had more pass breakups than Conley.
Plainly, Conley went from very bad to pretty good. It was as simple as letting him do what he does well.
The Texans played the fourth-highest rate of man coverage in the NFL at the time at which Conley was acquired, and they made no bones at letting Conley play up at the line of scrimmage. Perhaps because of his deficiencies as a zone coverage defender, and perhaps because of his inexperience in the system, Conley was frequently tasked as the backside defender against an isolated receiver, playing true press-man coverage with limited safety help. This was what Conley was always drafted to do: lockdown an opponent’s top receiver, one-on-one.
And he often did. Conley’s best physical traits coming out of college were length (33-inch arms), change of direction (6.68s 3-cone), and long speed (4.44s 40-yard dash). This physical blend let Conley play press in a variety of ways. He was able to turn and run with vertical routes without landing a punch; destroy quick-breaking timing routes with aggressive contact at the line of scrimmage; undercut intermediate routes in the trail.
On the vertical stems, watch Conley’s comfort using the sideline to close space and enjoy his acceleration/deceleration profile as he reacts to over-the-shoulder nine balls or back-shoulder targets.
When activating his one- and two-handed jams, watch how Conley is able to deny targets altogether by ruining route timing and controlling positioning, even creating traffic jams on the quarterbacks’ primary reads.
When dealing with quality release moves and playing from the trail, watch how Conley works with route breaks underneath his responsibility to deny passing lanes with his length and quickness.
Now, Conley was far from perfect in press coverage last season. He is jumpy at the line and wants to force the issue immediately, which means he’s playing reactionary trail coverage more than you’d like to see. Against the top receivers he faced, this led to separation that would have perhaps been picked on more if not for the deteriorating state of the other cornerbacks on the Houston roster. Conley must learn to keep his feet more patient at the line, as he often steps into his opponent at the snap, and could do with becoming less grabby throughout the route stem.
But that’s what the offseason is for—at least usually, as this offseason may not offer much development to anybody. Conley had his fifth-year option denied by the Texans and technically enters camp in a training camp battle with Lonnie Johnson, who he had relegated to special teams duty with his play last year. If Conley continues to play anything like he did to end 2019, however, it will not be much of a camp battle—nor will the Texans look back on the decision to decline his fifth-year option fondly.
Of course, Conley must do just that: prove that he is healthy and a consistent outside CB in a press-man scheme. If he does, he’ll hit free agency a year before many of the storied 2017 CB class, and offer a tremendous bargain opportunity for teams hunting for young, quality man-cover corner. And all of the smart teams? They fit that bill.
- Dec 01, 2022
- Nov 30, 2022