COLUMBUS, Ohio — There’s no real precedent for the predicament currently facing NFL teams interested in former Ohio State cornerback Gareon Conley.
Conley was viewed as a first-round lock in the 2017 NFL Draft until Tuesday, when TMZ reported that he had been accused of rape on April 9. By the sounds of it, there’s no real way for him to fully exonerate himself by Thursday night.
No charges have been filed, and he hasn’t been arrested. According to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, three witnesses have given statements denying the accusations against Conley. The accuser didn’t speak to police. But a rape kit administered to the accuser has not yet come back from testing, which leaves everything in limbo for the time being.
There have been last-minute character concerns raised before, but few accusations have risen to this level. Last year, Laremy Tunsil went from a top-5 pick to 13th overall when video surfaced right as the draft began of him using a gas mask to smoke marijuana during his time at Ole Miss. LSU’s Tyrann Mathieu also missed an entire year of football after being dismissed from LSU over drug use and ultimately fell to the third round.
Maybe the closest comparison to this situation is another LSU athlete. In 2015, offensive lineman La’el Collins had stock similar to Conley’s as the draft approached. Two days before the draft (again, sound familiar?) Baton Rouge police sought him for an interview about the shooting death of his ex-girlfriend who was pregnant with another man’s child.
Collins was never a suspect in the case, but the possibility still spooked NFL teams to the point that he went undrafted. He later signed with the Dallas Cowboys as an undrafted free agent, which cost him millions in guaranteed salary.
Even that case doesn’t feel fully similar to Conley’s situation. Despite the serious case, Collins was less connected to it given that he was never named as a suspect. Still, it could have a similar outcome. It’s hard to imagine a coach or general manager drafting Conley, knowing the questions that would arise, without being able to say or prove they know he’s innocent of the accusation.
As the hours until the draft tick away, teams are racing to try to gather as much information as they can about Conley and his accuser. According to Nola.com, the Saints are currently investigating it as much as they can.
“We’ll process the information,” head coach Sean Payton said. “We’ll try to gather as much stuff as we can. We’re somewhat familiar with the report.
“We’ll try to consider all that information, and it’ll be something you got to pay attention to.”
Conley has started disappearing from first-round mock drafts, so there’s clearly some doubt from analysts or scouts that the investigation will be resolved by Thursday. According to SI’s Peter King, Conley stands to lose as much as $10 million if he goes undrafted.
There’s a ray of hope for him, though, in that story from King. The longtime NFL reporter spoke to NFL executives, and it sounds as if they haven’t completely dismissed the option of drafting him.
“I texted Tuesday night with two NFL executives who are key players in their teams’ draft plans,” King wrote. “Both said Conley had a spotless record in their pre-draft research. One seemed on the verge of saying he couldn’t see his team drafting Conley, but stopped short. The other, on a team with legitimate Conley interest, said it was too early to tell.”