Oakland Raiders: Will Gareon Conley trade do more harm than help this season?

Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images /

Trading Gareon Conley forces the Oakland Raiders to rely on a rookie at cornerback but could that do more harm than good in the 2019 season?

For the long term, the Oakland Raiders may have a starting-caliber cornerback in Trayvon Mullen, but the pass defense could go through tough stretches as he finds his way in the starting lineup.

After a poor showing against the Green Bay Packers, cornerback Gareon Conley had to pack his belongings and report to the Houston Texans because the Raiders chose to deal him for a third-round pick. Oakland selected Mullen with a second-round selection this year. We had to expect that he would see the field with some consistency sooner than later.

According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), cornerback Daryl Worley has allowed 19 receptions for 265 yards and two touchdowns on 35 targets. Although he’s been a reliable perimeter defender in some games, the 24-year old had lapses in coverage during the last contest and against the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 2. In both games, he surrendered scores through the air.

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Still, Worley has played significantly better than Conley, so it’s no surprise Mullen took over for the latter.

Yet, it’s fair to ask if the Raiders gave up on Conley too quickly. He recorded 15 pass deflections and three interceptions in a solid sophomore year that seemed far from perfect. Nonetheless, he allowed an impressive 54 percent catch rate in coverage, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required).

Like early last season, Conley struggled in multiple games. Almost a year ago, the coaching staff decided to bench him in Weeks 5 and 6. He didn’t start in the latter contest. This time, the Raiders waved sayonara — for good.

Head coach Jon Gruden either feels extremely confident in Mullen, a rookie who’s played 78 defensive snaps, or thought Conley wouldn’t improve much and took a deal before his trade value drops even further going into 2020. If it’s the latter, that shows little patience for growth.

Conley only suited up for 23 games with the Silver and Black — almost a season and a half worth of action. As a 2017 first-rounder with clear potential, how could the Raiders deem him unsalvageable in such a short period?

As mentioned, Conley went through the peaks and lulls of development last year, but his coverage ability showed signs of a potential starter. Secondly, he has at least one more term on his rookie deal before the fifth-year option.

Perhaps the team could’ve held on to the third-year veteran and allowed him an attempt to bounce back from a rough start. If not, the Raiders may have been able to strike a deal at the opening of free agency or weeks before the draft.

Gruden isn’t known for great patience in development. In addition, according to ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler, Conley may have felt unwanted by the new regime that didn’t draft him in 2017:

Whatever the case, Conley’s replacement probably isn’t much better than him for this season. Like the departed cornerback, Mullen will also go through his ups and downs in a starting role. Gruden won’t have the option to turn back to a high-potential 24-year old in case the rookie struggles in the coming weeks.

Sure, the Raiders signed cornerback Nevin Lawson, but he hasn’t shown much in his five seasons with the Detroit Lions, logging 25 pass breakups and zero interceptions as a versatile inside-out defender. Following the Conley trade, Gruden also talked about rookie undrafted free agent Keisean Nixon and first-year cover man Isaiah Johnson as replacements. Neither has taken a defensive snap this season.

In the big picture, Mullen, Johnson and Nixon may develop into a quality trio at cornerback, but the Conley trade doesn’t vastly improve the league’s 31st-ranked pass defense in its current state.

Mullen faces tough tasks ahead. The Raiders will match up against three top-11 passing attacks in the next three weeks, the Texans (11th), Detroit Lions (sixth) and Los Angeles Chargers (third).

Two of those teams, the Lions (2-3-1) and Chargers (2-5), have sub-.500 records, but Oakland has to respect the way both clubs attack defenses through the air. If the Raiders can’t stop the bleeding on the back end, they will battle to win scoring shootouts.

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Unable to substitute Conley back in and hope for another midseason revival, Oakland places its faith in the coverage skills of an inexperienced group and a veteran who doesn’t make a lot of impact plays. If Worley isn’t a stable presence on the opposite side, quarterbacks will shred the secondary.