Gareon Conley’s flashes are worth buying in on

It is weird to believe that Bill O’Brien could buy low on anybody, just as it’s weird to believe that you can say that about someone who cost a third-round pick.

Green Bay’s decimation of the Raiders showed Conley at the nadir of his value. He was eaten up at times as a run defender. He gave up a tough catch to Jake Kumerow where the rookie ate him up on a curl route. He was in coverage on a deep ball to Marquez Valdes-Scantling that went late in the route once his safety cut inside and left the rest of the field open.

Jon Gruden has always been an aggressive coach, and he has yet to actually field a good defense in Oakland under Paul Guenther. Oakland is 30th in defensive DVOA this year, and was 30th last year. (They were 29th the year before!) The Raiders have zero pass rush and everybody involved in this secondary has to cover forever to make up for it. Didn’t they have some “Mack” guy at some point? Anyway…

So you’ve got two of the most impulsive NFL head coaches teaming up to make a deal that, on the surface, I think is actually pretty fair for both sides. It reminds me a lot of the Eli Apple trade last season. Apple got dealt for a fourth-rounder and a seventh-rounder, and I think we can probably say Apple doesn’t have Conley’s ceiling.


Conley’s Raiders career

Conley missed most of his first season with a shin injury that sent him to IR after a couple starts. The start of his second season was kind of colored with a lot of easy Case Keenum targets, but he wasn’t quite up to par on a few of the deep balls.

Conley had 15 single-coverage targets in his first two starts in 2018 per Sports Info Solutions. His snaps were down significantly after those two games, hitting their low point in Week 5 against the Chargers where he had just 12 defensive snaps. Gruden carrot-and-sticked his secondary hard in 2018. Conley had seven games with 89% or higher of the defensive snaps, and then also six games with between 46 and 73% of the snaps. Gruden also fought similar battles with Rashaan Melvin.

Towards the end of the season — I’d say his turnaround started in around the Indianapolis game in Week 8 — Conley started playing a lot better. He was tighter in his man coverage, and even when he was beat, he was still putting himself in good positions. I saw multiple examples of him learning on the field and even within a game.

Conley, I think, became a much more complete player towards the end of last season. I don’t necessarily buy the very common trope that I’ve had lobbed on me on Twitter that he’s a better man player. Towards the end of last year, he was doing well in man:

But, he was also making some well-thought out reads in zone:

Conley’s end of 2018 play was impressive — he was rightfully considered one of the two or three most valuable players on the Raiders this offseason. The Texans probably aren’t able to make this play before the season, or even two weeks ago. I think they may have been a bit lucky that this Packers game happened in the long run.

While he wasn’t playing as well in 2019, I think anybody with the kind of flashes that Conley showed in 2018 is worth a real investment. I also don’t think Conley was playing all that poorly outside of the Green Bay game.


The weaknesses

Conley’s weaknesses have a lot to do with one of the things you saw on that Packers tape: tackling on the outer third. That was not the first touchdown I saw him give up on that kind of play. He also was roasted in single-coverage on Melvin Gordon last year on the same sort of play.

I think the other clear weakness he has — and I think this is something that the Texans have stacked a lot of similar guys on — is in-breaking routes. Not specifically slants, but longer-developing plays where he has to cross the field horizontally. He had a lot of trouble keeping up with them early on in his career.

Again, to emphasize: I don’t think his zone defense is all that bad. I think he has some punch in off-man:

But when you ask him to move horizontally — think about the reception Bradley Roby allowed late in the Falcons game where he sort of slipped and fell late in a route — I think Conley has a lot of problems with those kinds of balls as well.


Long-term versus short-term

The Texans weren’t ever going to get into the Marcus Peters or Jalen Ramsey discussions. They didn’t have that kind of draft-pick firepower available. So when you thinned the market a bit, and you realized the Texans were in it after injuries continued to hammer the secondary, I think it mostly came down to Gareon Conley versus Chris Harris. (Maybe you could throw in William Jackson, but I think he would have cost more than Conley because the Bengals are super old school.)

Harris is, in my opinion, the better player today. But Harris is a pure rental, and is turning 31 next season.

Conley comes with an additional year of cost control, and probably two years of cost control as I can’t imagine the Texans not picking up his fifth-year option unless he’s an utter disaster or suffers a career-ending injury.

I loathe Bill O’Brien tossing draft picks away like candy, but I’m almost starting to wonder if it’s a methodical madness. Deshaun Watson will always keep this team afloat as long as he’s healthy. If Watson isn’t healthy, the team was going to fall apart anyway. The funny thing about future draft picks is that there are always more of them to trade.

At any rate, without the Tunsil trade, I don’t think anyone is concerned about the Conley trade. The concern is that the future gets shakier than ever, but the price for the player feels right to me.


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