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Raiders draft Gareon Conley in first round despite sexual assault investigation

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Conley denies the charges, and despite allegations, he remained in the first round.

NFL: Combine Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

The Raiders got some much-needed help at cornerback by adding Gareon Conley out of Ohio State with the No. 24 overall pick of the 2017 NFL draft.

Initially expected to be a first-round pick, Conley was accused of sexual assault just days ahead of the draft. His lawyer strongly refuted the charges but said his client would voluntarily schedule a meeting with law enforcement after the draft. The Cleveland Police Department confirmed to Land-Grant Holy Land that this is an ongoing investigation.

Conley released a statement denying the allegations.

"The things being said about me and what happened that night are not true and don't fit my character at all,” Conley said. “I realize that I put myself in the situation and I could have used better judgment.

“However, I have worked tirelessly to put myself in position to have the honor of being an NFL draft pick and these untrue allegations are putting a huge cloud over my name and the NFL Draft."

Conley’s attorney confirmed to Cleveland.com that he will be interviewed by police and provide a DNA sample on Monday.

Conley had a limited role during his redshirt freshman season with the Buckeyes but started every game over the next two years. He earned honorable mention All-Big Ten in 2015 after recording 49 tackles, five passes defended, two interceptions, and half a sack.

He continued to improve, finishing his 2016 season as second-team all-conference with eight pass breakups and four interceptions. Conley helped make up one of Ohio State’s best secondaries ever, alongside fellow corner Marshon Lattimore and safety Malik Hooker, and used the combine and his pro day workouts to jump up the draft board.

Why did the Raiders pick Conley?

The lockdown corner has the size and speed to contribute his rookie year. He was a big reason the Ohio State pass defense ranked seventh nationally in 2016. He added 20 pounds since high school, which has helped his production. Conley has coveted length — 6’0 with 33-inch arms — and also plays long, helping him excel in outside coverage.

Deceptive speed

As one of the many talented cornerbacks in this year’s loaded class, Conley needed a big performance at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indy to set himself apart. He ran an official 4.44 seconds in the 40-yard dash and was a top performer in the 3-cone drill at 6.68 seconds, surpassing expectations and drawing attention from many teams.

Conley, at 195 pounds with impressive burst, is what NFL teams are looking for.

Versatility

Heading into the 2016 season as the most experienced defensive back in the Ohio State secondary, Conley was a headache for opposing quarterbacks. He allowed only 37 percent of passes he faced to be completed.

At the combine, Conley outlined his best attribute as “the ability to play press man and versatility at nickel and corner.”

His confidence allowed him to trick passers into thinking they had an open target before flying out of nowhere to force a turnover. He did this twice against Wisconsin. His first diving grab was overturned, but Conley atoned for that later in the second half with a pick that counted (via Land-Grant Holy Land).

Conley likens his style to Denver’s Aqib Talib, another long, press corner who has enjoyed success in the NFL. Like Talib, the former Buckeye is probably best suited — at least initially — in zone coverage.

Are there any concerns with Conley?

The sexual assault case is still under investigation, but even if Conley isn’t charged, the NFL could still issue a suspension if an independent investigation concludes that he violated the league’s personal conduct policy.

Aside from the legal challenges he faces, there are some on-field concerns that could keep him from succeeding in the NFL. At the end of the 2015 season, Notre Dame’s Will Fuller — now a Houston Texan — hauled off four receptions on five targets for 103 yards and a touchdown against Conley. Receivers were often able to gain separation on the former Buckeye, who tended to overcompensate by being aggressive with his hands. This led to inevitable penalties.

He can also be better in run support — tackling is not a strength at this point, although his frame suggests it could be one day. Conley is still raw, having only started really playing football his sophomore year of high school. It was his athleticism on the basketball court that got his high school football coach’s attention, and it was watching Conley at basketball practice that sold Urban Meyer on the athlete.