Many are ready to slap the ‘bust’ label on the former first-round pick. Heading into Alex Leatherwood’s second year, he’s still struggling to earn a starting role. However, it’s not that simple for the Las Vegas Raiders’ offensive lineman. The better question is if it all falls on the shoulders of the Alabama product.
The Raiders shocked a lot of people when they took Leatherwood 17th overall in the 2021 NFL Draft. Not many expected Leatherwood’s name to be called on Day 1 at all, let alone the top 20. The pick was largely panned as a reach by both fans and the media.
The Silver and Black simultaneously surprised folks when they announced the Alabama product as a “tackle.” Prior to the draft, there was a lot of speculation that Leatherwood would be an interior offensive lineman in the pros. Typically, these types of players are announced generically as “offensive linemen.” Between the high selection and the ‘tackle’ label, the Raiders made their expectations clear: Leatherwood was to come in and become the team’s starting right tackle right away.
Were the Raiders unrealistic when it came to Alex Leatherwood?
Looking at his college tape, it was hard to see Leatherwood as a plug-and-play tackle. He just did not have the refined technique on his pass sets to be on an island with NFL edge rushers. His footwork was slow, his punches were sloppy, and he tended to reach too far and get off balance. His mauler style always seemed like a better fit on the inside.
Despite all that, the Raiders threw him right into the fire. The end result was Leatherwood getting burned. After a disastrous start to the season at tackle, the brain trust of Jon Gruden and Tom Cable decided to move him inside at guard. After spending the past several months learning the new offense and adjusting to the NFL at tackle, Leatherwood was suddenly asked to make a mid-season position switch to a spot he had not played in several years. The switch went about as well as expected. His struggles continued. However, you could at least see some improvement as the season went on and he got more comfortable at guard.
This past offseason, the Raiders ushered in a new regime, with Josh McDaniels taking over as head coach and Carmen Bricillo commandeering the offensive line. The funny thing about power changing hands is that the incoming regime always believes that they can do better. Consequently, Leatherwood was moved back out to tackle, and any progress he had made at guard was eroded. Unsurprisingly, Leatherwood has struggled mightily this preseason. Who would’ve thought?
Leatherwood is not blameless
While there are plenty of excuses for the second-year lineman’s poor play, that’s all they are. Excuses. Not causes, excuses. Plenty of players get drafted into less-than-ideal situations and are bad fits. Almost always, talent triumphs in the end. If Leatherwood were truly worth a first-round pick, or even a Day 2 pick, we would see some semblance of hope.
Instead, we are seeing him get beaten by backups routinely this preseason. Another damning issue for Leatherwood is the lack of improvement from Year 1 to Year 2. This is typically where players take the biggest steps. In retrospect, that first full NFL offseason is significant. However, the same technical flaws remain present. At some point, he simply has to be better.
The bottom line…
To say that Alex Leatherwood does not look good or even serviceable is a fair point. To call him a disappointment is not. If he were drafted on Day 3 as a project player, like he should have been, nobody would be complaining. Leatherwood should not be blamed for being drafted high and being asked to play a position that he was not capable of playing at an NFL level. Also, branding him with the dreaded bust label that folks are so quick to give out would be premature. Offensive linemen are kind of like NHL goalies in the sense that they typically do not hit their prime until their mid-to-late 20s.
At just 23, the sophomore lineman has plenty of time to grow. However, that growth will only occur if he makes a permanent move inside and never looks back. Every day this does not happen will be another day of his prime squandered. On top of that, Leatherwood will need to work harder than he ever has before to earn playing time or even just to stay in the league. Is he still capable of turning things around and having a good, long NFL career? Absolutely. Will he? Only time will tell.
*Top Photo: Matt Aguirre/Raiders