Gareon Conley, Obi Melifonwu should get fresh starts under Paul Guenther

ALAMEDA, Calif. -- Paul Guenther had his own draft ranking sheet last spring, and guess who was at the top of the then-Cincinnati Bengals defensive coordinator’s list when it came to cornerbacks?

Gareon Conley.

That should not be much of a surprise, considering Conley was seen in some corners as a top-10 pick before allegations of sexual assault arose the week of the draft (charges never came). He fell to the Oakland Raiders at No. 24 overall.

The Bengals did not draft a cornerback until the sixth round -- Houston’s Brandon Wilson at No. 207 overall -- and he was switched to safety.

One year later, Guenther, the Raiders’ new defensive coordinator under Jon Gruden, has a chance to coach up Conley, and Conley, so long as he is healed from his right shin injury, has a chance to get his NFL career going after playing in just two games and getting one pass breakup last season.

It is as if the Raiders, who will pick either ninth or 10th depending upon a coin flip with the San Francisco 49ers at the NFL owners meetings in late March, have an extra first-round pick this year, considering Conley produced next to nothing for Oakland in 2017.

You could say the same thing for second-round safety Obi Melifonwu, who played in just five games and had seven tackles.

“I really liked both of them when I evaluated [Conley and Melifonwu],” Guenther said a few weeks back. “[Conley] was my favorite corner coming out. His ability, he’s smooth in the pedal, he’s a good press corner, which we love to have. I’m excited to work with him.

“Obi is a big guy that when you turn on the tape, you’re like, ‘Man, who is this son of a gun?’ He’s playing half field, he’s down in the box playing the run.”

Conley, who was slowed since June minicamp with the shin injury, appeared in Weeks 2 and 3 and was shut down after that, undergoing surgery in December.

Melifonwu, meanwhile, began the season on injured reserve after injuring a leg in training camp. He made his debut in November, starting one game at cornerback against Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in Mexico City, with disastrous results, and then he went back on IR in December with a hip issue that required surgery.

“We just need to get these guys out on the grass and keep them healthy and teach them the system,” Guenther said. “I always tell these guys: You don’t help us when you’re in the training room for 10 weeks out of the season. You’re not helping the team.

“I am going to tell the trainers to turn the temperature down to about 60 degrees in the training room this year so we can keep them guys out of there.”

Guenther was joking -- we think -- but this much is true: Conley played only 92 snaps but flashed enough to finish with the highest Pro Football Focus grade among the Raiders' rookies, at 79.6. Melifonwu was seventh out of Oakland’s 10 rookies, at 49.4, and played 34 total snaps.

In fact, Conley came out of Ohio State with a rep for being a shutdown corner, as evidenced by opposing quarterbacks' having a 13.6 passer rating when throwing at him in 2016.

“I mean, that stat really ... just means that I’m locking down whoever I go against,” Conley said after the draft. “I mean, just any stats, honestly. I just go out there and do my best and just try to lock that man down because that’s my job at the end of the day, and that’s what helps the team win.”

So long as he and Melifonwu stay healthy, right?

“This day and age in the NFL, when you draft guys and you think they’re worthy, you have to get them out on the field,” Guenther said. “You can’t sit on these guys for a couple of years because before you know it, their rookie contracts are over, and they’re out the door.

“I certainly think there’s some good, young prospects here that I’m eager to work with.”