Making the Case that Gareon Conley, Not Marshon Lattimore, is the Top Cornerback in the 2017 NFL Draft

By Kevin Harrish on April 23, 2017 at 7:15 am
Gareon Conley is a two year starter for a national title contending team.

Less than a week before the 2017 NFL Draft and former Buckeye Marshon Lattimore is near-unanimously considered the top cornerback in the class. With his rare mix of speed, athleticism and ball skills, he's almost guaranteed to go in the top-10 in this weeks draft and will possibly climb all the way to the top-five.

Meanwhile, his counterpart, Gareon Conley, is getting mid first-round projections and is consistently considered the second or third-best cornerback in the draft class.

It's tough to split hairs between the two when both are sure first-round picks, but it seems odd for so many to arrive at such a consensus that one is a definitively better prospect than they other based on the tape they've seen. It's especially odd that the consensus lies with Lattimore, since it wasn't him who had the most accomplished career at Ohio State — it was Conley.

It was Conley who played in all 15 games during Ohio State's 2014 national championship season. It was Conley who started in the season's biggest regular-season game against Michigan State when Eli Apple was hampered by an injury in 2014. It was Conley who earned the starting spot opposite Apple the following season and was a part of one of the most talented Buckeye teams of all time. It was Conley who was the clear-cut starter entering camp in 2016 while Lattimore and Denzel Ward battled for the other spot.

Quite simply, as long as Lattimore and Conley have been on the team together, Conley has been higher on the depth chart. Of course, Lattimore dealt with hamstring injuries much of his Ohio State career, but that doesn't change the fact that Conley was consistently on the field for three seasons and Lattimore wasn't.

Conley has far more game experience, more tape to look at than Lattimore and is a more versatile player. When Ohio State struggled at the nickel position during the 2016 season, the coaches called on Conley to move inside — something he'd never done in his Buckeye career.

“He was the guy to do it too," Ohio State defensive coordinator Greg Schiano said, praising his versatility. "I think that says a lot about him, just his skill set and just his ability to jump back and forth. 

Conley had two interceptions from the nickel position: a game-clinching interception against Michigan State and a pick against Clemson's Deshaun Watson while guarding wide receiver Mike Williams — both of whom are expected to be first-round picks in the draft.

Schiano also noted that even when he played on the outside, Conley showed versatility, as he was the one the coaches called on to flip sides and it never seemed to bother him.

"That to me is a versatile guy," Schiano said. "It’s weird, some guys it doesn’t effect them at all and some guys it makes them uncomfortable. So when you have a guy that’s really comfortable with all that, it makes you feel good knowing we have the opportunity to plug him into very different roles.”

The team that drafts Conley is getting a complete cornerback that can play both outside spots, the slot, play man-to-man press coverage and slip back into a zone.

“You talk about the ability to do many things," Schiano said. "The more you can do the more valuable you are in any league, especially that league when you have a 53-man roster and a 46-man game-day roster. I think it definitely has an impact.”

The biggest edge Lattimore has on Conley and everyone else in the draft is athleticism. There's no question Lattimore is the best athlete among the cornerbacks in this year's class — he showed that on the field and on the scouting combine.

However, when you compare Lattimore's measurables to Conley's, you find the numbers aren't drastically different.

2017 NFL Combine Results
MARSHON LATTIMORE 6-0 193 4.36 31¼ 8⅞ 38.5 132.0
GAREON CONLEY 6-0 195 4.44 33 11 37 129.0 6.68 4.18

Lattimore has the better 40-yard dash time and a slightly higher vertical, but not by much. Conley's 4.44 is still blazing fast and a 37-inch vertical is still well above average for the position.

Of course, I don't say all of this to understate Lattimore's value. He's one of the best coverage corners I've ever seen in a long time and has the speed and athleticism to blanket the top wide receiver's in the league. He's a rare talent and he's going to make a team very happy.

Choosing between Conley and Lattimore, it's splitting hairs. Each have their strengths. Conley is a proven, incredibly versatile corner while Lattimore is a physical freak with an enormously high ceiling. Both are worthy of a high first-round pick.That's the key — both. It's not that Lattimore isn't the top cornerback in the draft, it's that Conley could be just as easily.

Unfortunately, the NFL Draft rules dictate that one player must be taken before the other. Somebody will be drafted first, and it will likely be Lattimore — but don't sleep on Gareon Conley.

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