How the Chicago Bears can fix ex-Raiders first-round project Alex Leatherwood

The Las Vegas Raiders’ decision to release former first-round offensive lineman Alex Leatherwood as part of final cuts on Tuesday put an official end to one of the worst multi-year draft hauls any team has had in recent NFL history. Under former head coach Jon Gruden and general manager Mike Mayock, the Raiders had a total of five first-round picks from 2019 through 2021. Of the five players picked — Leatherwood in 2021, receiver Henry Ruggs III and cornerback Damon Arnette in 2020, and edge-rusher Clelin Ferrell and running back Josh Jacobs in 2019 — only Jacobs is still with the team, and there was some noise this offseason about Jacobs being on his way out.

Leatherwood didn’t have the history of off-field issues that Ruggs and Arnette did; the Raiders’ decision to release him was based entirely on performance. In his rookie season of 2021, per Pro Football Focus, Leatherwood allowed eight sacks, 17 quarterback hits, and 42 quarterback hurries in 770 pass-blocking snaps. Those 67 total pressures were the most allowed by any offensive lineman last season. Leatherwood was also flagged for 16 penalties; only Connor Williams of the Cowboys, and Oli Udoh of the Vikings had more, with 17 each.

Pre-draft in 2021, I had Leatherwood ranked as the 10th-best offensive tackle in his class, based on his work over four seasons at Alabama. He allowed three sacks and 16 total pressures in 2020, his final season with the Crimson Tide, and that’s what I had to go on.

That the Raiders took Leatherwood in the first round wasn’t a total surprise, given that Tom Cable was the team’s offensive line coach from 2018 through 2021, and Cable has always been able to talk himself into, and grievously overvalue, aggressive blockers with major technical issues. That was certainly the case when Cable laid waste to the Seahawks’ front five in a personnel sense from 2011-2017 as their assistant head coach and offensive line coach.

One of the players I comped Leatherwood to coming out of college was Germain Ifedi, the Texas A&M tackle Seattle selected with the 31st overall pick in the 2016 draft, based on Cable’s recommendation. Like Leatherwood, Ifedi was a glass-eater without much else to work with. Technical excellence would have to come in time. It didn’t in Ifedi’s case, and after trying him at tackle and guard, the Seahawks moved along pretty quickly. They declined Ifedi’s fifth-year option, and the Bears signed him in April of 2020. It didn’t work out, but that doesn’t mean it can’t with Leatherwood.

As it turns out, the Bears picked Leatherwood up with a waiver claim on Wednesday.

Overdrafted by Tom Cable. Washed out with his first team. Gets a second chance with the Bears. Having established that history does indeed repeat itself, how can the Bears, and new offensive line coach Chris Morgan, make the most out of what Leatherwood has to offer… whatever that may be? He may have been a huge overdraft, but there has to be some talent there, right?

As always, the tape doesn’t lie, so let’s start there.

Pass pro isn't passive.

(AP Photo/Rick Scuteri, File)

Leatherwood’s 2022 preseason wasn’t any better than his 2021 regular season. He allowed two sacks, two quarterback hits, and eight quarterback hurries on 89 pass-blocking snaps. Those 12 pressures led all offensive linemen this preseason. Leatherwood wasn’t called for a single penalty in four preseason games, so we’ll call that a net gain.

When a player struggles this consistently at one thing, you want to get forensic in two ways: What’s wrong, and is it fixable? Based on my study, Leatherwood may require a total “from the studs” fix, because there’s a lot going on here that just doesn’t work.

Let’s start with his ability to get his hands on a pass-rusher and latch on, controlling the down. Against Patriots pass-rusher Anfernee Jennings in the Raiders’ preseason finale, Leatherwood (No. 70) gets into a good set off the snap at right tackle, he has his kick-step going well, he’s ready to take Jennings on… and without Jennings even putting any kind of cross-body move on him, Leatherwood allows penetration to his inside shoulder.

Losing around the edge.

(AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

There are a rare few offensive tackles who can consistently control defenders around the arc of the pocket. I always think of Joe Thomas, the former Browns great and future Hall-of-Famer, when that comes to mind. More often than not, though, teams have to make do with guys who will let pass-rushers slip through on the back half of the rush. This has been a problem for Orlando Brown of the Chiefs, for example, and Brown is playing on the franchise tag after Kansas City balked at what he wanted long-term. When you have a tackle who loses late in the down, it’s a problem.

On this pressure against the Patriots, Leatherwood seems to have hs lower body timed to take the rusher around the arc, but he doesn’t sync the attack with his hands. The result? Losing late in the down.

What Leatherwood has to work with.

(AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

Another way in which Leatherwood might be an Orlando Brown-style player if his new coaches can get the most out of him? Leatherwood is far more comfortable in an offense where he’s firing out against defenders. He’s an attacker more than he is a defender. This makes Leatherwood an average to (occasionally) above-average run-blocker. This six-yard run by Kenyan Drake in Week 2 of the preseason against the Dolphins is an ideal example. Leatherwood latches onto defensive tackle Zach Sieler, and Zach Sieler isn’t going where he wants to go — he’s going wherever Leatherwood tells him to go.

The Bears need to start from scratch.

(AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

Duke Manyweather, the Texas-based performance coach who works with a large amount of pro and college linemen every year, especially during his annual OL Masterminds summit, had this to say about Leatherwood after his release.

I think that these points are absolutely correct. Leatherwood came into an NFL that had him dead to rights from a technical perspective, and he didn’t get the coaching and refinement work he needed in his rookie season to bridge the gap. In the transition from the Gruden/Mayock era to the new group, defined by head coach Josh McDaniels and general manager Dave Ziegler, he wasn’t going to be a fit — even though there are problems all over Las Vegas’ current offensive line.

It’ll be up to the Bears to extract the most out of Alex Leatherwood, and save him from first-round bust status. And in that process, there is some raw clay to mold.

Story originally appeared on Touchdown Wire