This NFL draft was widely expected to be among the most unpredictable in recent years, and that holds true for the Ohio State Buckeyes in it.
While cornerback Marshon Lattimore and safety Malik Hooker are regarded as likely top-10 picks in tonight’s first round, the biggest unknown is the status of Gareon Conley.
The cornerback had been considered among the draft’s biggest risers. ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said on Monday that he expected Conley to be taken by the middle of the first round.
But that was before it surfaced that a 23-year-old woman had accused Conley of sexual assault in a downtown Cleveland hotel on April 9. No charges have been filed, and Conley was adamant about his innocence in a statement released by his agent on Wednesday, saying the allegation is “completely false.”
“I pride myself in doing things the right way on and off the field,” Conley said. “The things said about me and what happened that night are not true and don’t fit my character at all. I realize I put myself in the situation and I could have used better judgment. However, I have worked tirelessly to put myself in position to have the honor of being an NFL draft pick and these untrue allegations are putting a huge cloud over my name and the NFL Draft.”
Conley said that the allegations are an attempt “to ruin a once in a lifetime experience for me and my family.” He added that several witness would corroborate his view and that there is video evidence to support that.
Police are investigating the allegation of rape, and that it came to light so soon before the draft will have teams scrambling to sort out truth from fiction.
“If he is innocent and this is some kind of shakedown attempt,” a source inside the NFL told The Dispatch, “then that’s really unfortunate. If the allegations are true, then he is not a guy most teams would want. The timing stinks for both him and the teams.”
The allegation arose from an encounter at the downtown Westin Hotel. According to a Cleveland Division of Police report, the woman met Conley in an elevator and decided to go to Conley’s room, where a woman and two other men were present. The woman who accused Conley told police that he engaged in sex against her will. She said that Conley then kicked her out of the room.
When police arrived, Conley had left the hotel room but two men and a woman were there. One of the men told police that Conley did not touch the woman and that she was upset “because she got kicked out of the room.” The other man told police that nothing had happened between Conley and the woman.
According to the police report, no evidence was found in the room and police took the woman to a hospital for a rape examination and treatment. Police tried to interview the woman “with negative results” after she “kept saying that she wanted to go home and that her dignity was stripped from her in a matter of minutes.”
Conley canceled plans to attend the draft in Philadelphia, but Lattimore was there and vouched for him.
“He says he’s innocent and I feel like he’s innocent,” Lattimore said. “Just knowing that, that you’re innocent but you still have to go through it — he’s losing millions of dollars right now.
“It’s not about the money. It’s about his character. But still, he worked hard his whole life to get to this point, and to have it taken away that easy over an accusation, it’s hard for me because that’s like my brother.”
A year ago, Ohio State set an NFL record by having 12 players taken in the first four rounds. This year, it’s likely that seven Buckeyes will be taken.
If the most recent mock drafts are accurate, Lattimore will be the first Buckeye taken. He overcame hamstrings in his first two years at Ohio State to have a stellar 2016 season and has dazzled scouts with his athleticism.
Also a one-year Ohio State starter, Hooker was considered a likely top-5 pick. But his status has been slightly hurt because hip labrum and sports hernia surgery have kept him from working out for teams. He is still regarded as a likely top-10 pick because of his remarkable range and play-making ability.
In addition to the defensive backs, center Pat Elflein, wide receiver/hybrid Curtis Samuel and linebacker Raekwon McMillan are expected to be selected Friday when the second and third rounds are conducted.
Receiver Noah Brown is likely to be taken on Saturday during the final four rounds. Punter Cameron Johnston probably will be undrafted, which is typical for his position.
Among players with local roots, Ashland tight end Adam Shaheen, a Big Walnut graduate, is expected to be taken in the second or third round.