ALAMEDA, Calif. — Gareon Conley is ready for a fresh start.
The 2017 first-round pick who was expected to become the shutdown cornerback Oakland has lacked for years had his first season derailed by injuries that limited him to just two games as a rookie and created a void in the Raiders secondary.
“I feel like it’s still my rookie year because I didn’t play a lot,” Conley said Tuesday. “I learned a lot mentally. I feel like it’s my second year mentally knowing the game and the logistics. But physically I feel like it’s my rookie year again because I didn’t play a lot.”
Conley is a key part of a revamped secondary that brings back just one cornerback who played at least 100 snaps on defense last year in Dexter McDonald, who is a longshot to make the team in 2018.
David Amerson and Sean Smith were let go and TJ Carrie left for Cleveland in free agency. In their place are free agent acquisitions Rashaan Melvin, Daryl Worley and Leon Hall, as well as draft pick Nick Nelson.
But perhaps the most important member of that group will be Conley, who is being counted on to provide the lockdown coverage Oakland has been missing ever since Nnamdi Asomugha left seven years ago.
“He’s showing why he was the first-round pick,” safety Reggie Nelson said. “I think there’s a high standard out there for him and he’s holding that up. I think Conley is doing a great job right now doing what the coaches ask him to do. … He just has tight coverage. A great little athlete. He’s going to be great in this game. Just keep learning and playing ball.”
Conley wasn’t able to do much as a rookie after being drafted 24th overall out of Ohio State despite a rape allegation that surfaced shortly before the draft but ended up with no charges being filed.
Conley was impressive in offseason workouts last year before hurting his shin in minicamp in June. That injury lingered and kept Conley sidelined for all of training camp.
He managed to work his way back and made it on the field for his NFL debut in Week 2 but said he was never completely healthy. Conley showed flashes of his ability the first time he was targeted with a pass when he made an acrobatic breakup against the New York Jets and nearly tipped the ball to Nelson for an interception.
But he played only one more game, finishing the season with just 93 defensive snaps and seven tackles. In 53 snaps of coverage, Conley allowed just four catches for 35 yards, according to SportRadar.
“I feel like I played all right but I feel like I could play way better watching film,” Conley said. “I had a couple of good plays but I had a lot of bad plays, too.”
Conley tried to work his way back by taking time off practice but never completely healed and eventually needed season-ending surgery.
He was limited at the start of the offseason program this year but is now back to full speed and showing the Raiders why he was so coveted coming out of college.
“It’s been a dark world that he’s been in, this young man,” coach Jon Gruden said. “He had a terrible injury he had to rehab from. He’s had to change coaches, learn a new system. It’s been a slow, steady process but man he’s a good player. When he’s feeling good, you can see why we picked him No. 1.”
NOTES: Rookie T Brandon Parker and DL Fadol Brown got into a fight during a two-minute drill late in practice and Gruden sent Brown off the field and to the weight room. “I didn’t like what happened today, particularly in the situation. … We’re in a two-minute drill to win the game and we got a guy ejected for fighting,” Gruden said. … S Marcus Gilchrist sat out with a minor calf injury.
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