The Raiders answered one of their biggest needs in the first round of the NFL draft, but their selection came with more questions.
Oakland drafted former Ohio State cornerback Gareon Conley with the 24th overall pick Thursday night, hoping to bolster a defense that ranked 26th last season in yards allowed and proved susceptible to the big play.
Conley was widely regarded as a first-round talent. But his draft stock came into question this week amid allegations that he sexually assaulted a woman at a Cleveland hotel earlier this month.
Conley has not been charged with a crime and strongly denied the allegations Wednesday in a statement, calling them “completely false.”
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“We did our due diligence throughout this whole process,” Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie said. “We trust our research, reports, everything that we have on Mr. Conley. And we feel really good about picking Gareon Conley, and having him join the Raider team and having him be a great teammate for our players.”
Speaking to reporters on a conference call late Thursday, Conley said he expects to meet with police Monday regarding their investigation. He also confirmed that he took a polygraph test. NFL Network’s Ian Rapaport reported that Conley assented to such a test before the draft at the request of a team that was not the Raiders and passed.
“I’m very confident that it’ll be resolved,” Conley said on the conference call.
The Raiders clearly are as well, opting for Conley over other highly regarded defensive players who were still available at No. 24. Those included linebacker Reuben Foster of Alabama, last year’s Butkus Award winner, who carried his own red flags regarding the health of his shoulder and a diluted urine sample at last month’s Scouting Combine.
Despite being thin at linebacker, Oakland passed on Foster, who wound up going to San Francisco at No. 31 after the 49ers traded back into the first round to get him.
Conley, listed at 6 feet and 195 pounds, was a team captain and second-team All-Big Ten selection as a junior last season at Ohio State. He recorded four interceptions and eight pass break-ups while holding opponents to a 37 percent completion rate.
“As far as I’m concerned, he’s the type of corner you look for,” McKenzie said. “It’s hard to get separation from him, he can play the deep ball, he can play press. He’s big, he’s strong, he’s fast and he understands the game.”
As the first cornerback taken by the Raiders in the first round since D.J. Hayden in 2013, Conley could step right into the slot corner role vacated by Hayden, who departed in free agency this offseason. Conley played mostly outside corner in college but said he played some slot corner last season. He could also challenge incumbent starters David Amerson and Sean Smith, neither of whom had strong seasons last year.
“We expect him to come in and compete,” coach Jack Del Rio said. “He’s a football junkie. He loves to compete.”
ESPN reported this week, citing a police report, that Conley had been accused of rape on April 9 by a 23-year-old woman who said she met Conley in a hotel elevator and went to his room. The woman alleged that after she declined an offer of group sex, Conley had sex with her and kicked her out of the room, ESPN reported.
In his statement Wednesday, Conley said he has witnesses who dispute that sequence of events, and that he’s “completely confident that as the facts actually come out my name will be cleared.”
Despite that, Conley said Thursday, he wasn’t sure what to expect on draft day. Prior to the allegations he was thought by some to be an early first-round pick. As a reflection of that, Conley was among the players invited to attend the draft in Philadelphia, which he opted against after the accusations surfaced, saying he didn’t want to be a “distraction.”
Leading up to the draft, Conley said, he was unaware of the extent of the Raiders’ interest in him. When the 24th pick came around, his phone rang with McKenzie on the other end.
“He just told me he was confident that everything would blow over, he was confident in me and he wanted to pick me,” Conley said. “It was just unreal honestly. It was probably – it was the best moment of my life. Not probably, it was the best moment of my life.”