Gareon Conley enters draft stronger, seasoned, prepared to be first-rounder

PHOENIX -- When former Ohio State cornerback Gareon Conley began preparing for next week’s NFL draft, his to-do list was short.

He wanted to get faster and stronger. The rest of his game was, for the most part, ready to go. But he knew one thing was certain as he logged hours in the gym: He was preparing to be a first-round pick.

Conley, who is widely considered to be top-15 material, didn’t put much stock in his time in the 40-yard dash, which was 4.45 seconds at the NFL scouting combine in early March.

“Game speed and 40 speed are two different things,” he told ESPN. “I feel like I have 40 speed and game speed.”

But Conley readily admitted he needed to improve on his overall strength, which he said affected his performance against the run last season. The stronger he gets, the better tackler he expects to become. Last season, he missed a tackle once every 5.6 attempts, according to Pro Football Focus.

“I feel that just makes me look like I’m lacking in the run game, obviously,” he said. “I just need to improve on my tackling.”

When Conley arrived at the Fischer Institute -- a physical-therapy and performance center in Phoenix run by Brett Fischer, the physical therapist for the Arizona Cardinals -- earlier this spring to prepare for the combine and his pro day, Conley showed the strain of a long college season, which lasted 13 games and ended Dec. 31.

He needed to improve his upper-body strength, Fischer said, to add the sort needed to play in the NFL and bring down bigger, more powerful running backs than Conley was used to facing in college.

“Reading some of the things you read about him, that’s one area that we want to show that he can make the tackle if need be,” Fischer said. “Now, you don’t necessarily draft defensive backs to be a great tackler, but last year, a guy we had in here, Logan Ryan, ... led the Patriots in tackles.”

Once Conley, who elected to enter the draft after his junior season, improves his tackling and becomes a better run-stopping cornerback, his package as a defensive back will be inching toward complete.

He’s one of the top man-to-man, press-coverage corners in this year’s class. His NFL passer rating of 14.0 on throws into his coverage area was the best in the country last season, thanks to him allowing just 14 catches -- seven coming in the final two games -- for 159 yards, according to PFF. He also had four interceptions and seven pass breakups last season.

Conley’s size -- 6-foot, 195 pounds -- has made him a coveted defensive back. His athleticism, however, will make him a first-day pick, potentially top-15. Fischer has worked with the likes of Darrelle Revis, Eli Apple and Devin McCourty, among other top defensive backs, and he said Conley is just as impressive as any of them.

“He’s such a great athlete,” Fischer said. “This kid’s amazing. It’s just fun to watch him do drills because he’s that smooth. He’s that athletic.”

While Conley fine-tunes his physical traits leading up to next Thursday’s first round, his mental state needs perhaps just a buff at best.

He said he developed a mental fortitude at Washington High School in Massillon, Ohio, that has allowed him to block out the pressure that came with being one of the best prep players in one of the best high-school football regions in the country and followed him to Ohio State. In Columbus, Conley said, practices were harder than games, which he feels prepared him for the adversity and challenges that await in the NFL.

“I feel like I handle pressure well,” Conley said. “I feel like that’s one of my assets that sets me apart from other people: my mental focus and mental ability to handle adversity.”

It didn’t take Fischer long to notice after meeting Conley.

“He’s so cool and collected,” Fischer said. “He’s amazing. He’s a veteran. Ohio State prepared him for this process. He’s seasoned. You get a kid like this and you’re like, ‘Wow.’ I forget he’s a rookie. He’s taken anything -- ‘Hey, this is what we want you to get better in’ -- and he takes it to the next level. He gets it.

“You can tell he’s played in big games. You can tell he’s been around really experienced coaches and trainers and strength coaches. He’s seasoned in so many different areas. You can draft him and play him that first year, hands down. He’s NFL-game-ready.”