Just two years ago, NFL teams ran from La’el Collins in dread, terrified of spending a valuable draft pick on a talented prospect who was involved in a murder investigation. Their abundance of caution, and the uncertainty of his legal situation, sent Collins — a top-rated tackle from LSU — sliding completely through all seven rounds of the 2015 NFL Draft, into undrafted free agency and subject to the whims of extra-nervous executives and coaches.
Gareon Conley didn’t have to go through that. Rape allegations are still in play for him, but his football home isn’t. He only slid from the top half of the first round to the bottom of it, 24th overall to the Raiders.
This took place in the same draft in which running back Joe Mixon was reportedly taken off several draft boards and was expected to fall to the second round at best, for punching a woman in an incident caught on camera four years ago.
Conley, from Ohio State, was one of the top-rated cornerbacks in the draft, but right up until Roger Goodell took the stage for the first time Thursday night, it was believed that no team would take the extreme risk necessary to pick him in the first round. The first two days were no guarantee, in fact.
The Raiders ended the speculation earlier than anyone believed — even though police in Cleveland, where a woman accused Conley of raping her in a hotel there earlier this month, are not finished with their investigation. On the other hand, no charges have been filed.
Conley called the accusation “untrue” in a statement on the eve of the draft. Not surprisingly, Conley did not attend the draft in Philadelphia, as he had been scheduled to.
Raiders head coach Jack Del Rio’s comments to reporters indicated that they had no issues with Conley’s case, or his character.
Jack Del Rio calls Gareon Conley a "really clean" player and a "quality kid."
— Lindsay Jones (@bylindsayhjones) April 28, 2017
Collins could not get a team to take a chance in the entire 2015 draft, after word got out just before the draft that police wanted to question him in the slaying of a woman he once dated. He was never named as a suspect, and as it turned out, he was not involved at all.
This all happened less than two years after then-Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez had been jailed and charged with murder, a period in which teams second-guessed themselves for overlooking red flags on him and other troubled players in past drafts.
Despite his name being cleared, Collins was toxic … until the draft was over. The Cowboys beat out several teams to sign him, and he started at guard as a rookie. He’s expected to start at right tackle this season, his third.
Conley, meanwhile, likely has a chance to start immediately for the Raiders as a first-round pick.
That, however, depends on whether he’s charged. Unless he’s completely exonerated, the case will follow him whether he, the Raiders or the NFL like it or not.
Yet the consequences already are less dire than what Collins faced, under very similar circumstances, two drafts ago.