COLUMBUS, Ohio — The rise of Ohio State cornerback Gareon Conley as an NFL draft prospect couldn’t have come at a better time.
Conley began his junior year in 2016 viewed by scouts as a second- or third-round prospect. He exited his final season in Columbus as a second-team All-Big Ten selection and had improved his stock to the point that he became a fringe first-round candidate. Since January, he’s bolstered his stock to the point that he’s now viewed as a first-round lock who could even sneak into the top 10.
So what changed? For starters, he carries with him the reputation of coming from Ohio State. The Buckeyes had 5 players drafted in the first 20 picks last year, and each delivered on the hype. Conley also played this season with 2 players widely expected to be chosen among the first 10 picks — safety Malik Hooker and cornerback Marshon Lattimore. When analysts watched Ohio State film, they also got to see Conley and had a baseline to compare him to. It turns out his play hasn’t been that much different from Lattimore’s, and draft analysts and scouts are starting to notice.
— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) April 12, 2017
Midway through Ohio State’s season, cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs moved Conley into the slot on the nickel package. It allowed Ohio State to put its 3 best cornerbacks on the field, with Lattimore and Denzel Ward on the outside and Conley inside locking down the slot receiver.
“It was a great challenge to learn that spot, but I’m getting used to it now and we’re just going to keep improving on what we do,” Conley said after a game-clinching interception at Michigan State. Two games later, he picked off Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson while operating inside.
That move added a skill set and hasn’t gone unnoticed by draft analysts. Here’s what Sports Illustrated’s Chris Burke had to say, for example, when he broke down Conley:
“Because of how adept he is at finding the football, Conley can play in a variety of schemes or alignments. His interception of Watson came when he was lined up in the slot, against likely first-round pick Mike Williams. He caught a little bit of a break when Williams slipped making a cut on an out route, but Conley was all over that route regardless. Conley also is not afraid to bail off his initial assignment to make a play behind him—a plus for zone-heavy teams.”
Ohio State defensive coordinator Greg Schiano, who previously coached Tampa Bay in the NFL, said that versatility goes a long way with teams.
“Well it certainly helps,” he said. “You talk about the ability to do many things, the more you can do, the more valuable you are in any league, but especially in that league when you have a 53-man roster and I think it’s still a 46-man game-day roster. I think it definitely has an impact. And he was the guy to do it so that says something about him.”
Conley only added to his red-hot draft stock when he blazed through a 4.44-second 40-yard dash at the 2017 NFL Combine. That number catapulted him into a probable first-round selection. It seems as though scouts have been taking a second look since then, and they like what they see.
As such, it should be a good night for Coombs when he travels to Philadelphia and could see both of his cornerbacks off the board before the first round is even halfway completed.
“Picture that was your son,” he said. “Whatever it was that your son was trying to do for his life, and he trained to do that 1 thing — whatever it was, it doesn’t have to be an NFL football player — and he was training to do that 1 thing and he accomplished that goal and you got to stand there with him when it happened. If you can imagine what that would feel like for you, that’s what it feels like for me. I love those 2 kids, and to watch what they’ve developed into and the men that they’ve become and to be able to stand with them at probably their finest moment other than a moment on a football field, it’s going to be really special.”