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Raiders’ Alex Leatherwood focuses on basics, tunes out critics

The lessons that Raiders offensive lineman Alex Leatherwood learned during a tumultuous rookie season are too multiple to list.

The weekly testing ground of dealing with defensive linemen as strong and fast and agile as he is were constant reminders that he no longer was playing in the Southeastern Conference. So were the daily practices against elite players such as Maxx Crosby and Yannick Ngakoue.

But even those took a back seat to rule No. 1 for anyone making the transition from college to the NFL, especially those who have the added pressure of being drafted in the first round.

Turn a deaf ear to the outside noise.

Leatherwood’s struggles during his first season — from dealing with the analysts who panned the Raiders’ decision to draft him 17th overall to producing a fluctuating level of play that sometimes bordered on downright bad — made him a constant target for criticism.

Early on, he pretty much heard everything. And at times, it penetrated.

“I’m human, I got emotions,” Leatherwood said. “I’m also prideful in what I do.”

Leatherwood isn’t making excuses. He understands the pressure that comes with being a professional athlete, let alone a high-profile draft pick being asked to be an impact starter on a playoff-caliber team. But as he struggled to find his footing, first at the right tackle position the Raiders drafted him to play and then at right guard, where he moved four games into the season, he also found himself tuning into the noise beyond the team facility.

He realized a change was needed.

From the practice field to the film room to the weight room and everywhere else his offseason journey took him as he reworked everything from his body to his footwork to his strength and agility, Leatherwood tried to be as in-tune with the present as possible.

“Be where my feet are,” Leatherwood said. “Focus on me and getting better every day.”

None of which guarantees him anything as he embarks on his second season, this time under a new coaching staff that inherited Leatherwood.

Unlike Jon Gruden and Mike Mayock, who drafted Leatherwood, Raiders coach Josh McDaniels and general manager Dave Ziegler are not nearly as tied to him. That doesn’t mean they want to move on from Leatherwood, but whatever role he plays this season will be earned, not granted.

That has been obvious throughout an offseason in which Leatherwood has split starting right tackle duties with Brandon Parker while also getting snaps at guard. Leatherwood took the majority of snaps at right tackle with the first-team offense on the first day of mandatory minicamp Tuesday, but was mostly back with the second team Wednesday.

Granted, it’s not advisable to pay much attention to depth charts at this time of year. But it would be naive to read absolutely nothing into Leatherwood not getting all the snaps at right tackle.

The former Alabama standout isn’t dwelling on his present spot on the depth chart. After spending the offseason making an honest assessment of his rookie season and spending development time in Dallas and Las Vegas, he is simply trying to lay the foundation for this season.

The emphasis was on getting back to the basics.

“Not putting the cart before the horse,” Leatherwood said. “Just going back to the basics and fundamentals of offensive line play. Pass protection, run game.”

There are noticeable changes. Leatherwood seems faster getting off the line of scrimmage and setting his feet in pass protection. And as he pointed out Wednesday, the attention he is paying to proper hand placement is allowing him to be more violent and get his hands on his blocking assignment.

The improvements are subtle, but they can be the difference between a winning rep and a losing one. And eventually, those can be the difference in creating a hole for a running back or making sure quarterback Derek Carr has the time to set up in the pocket.

It guarantees Leatherwood nothing other than an opportunity. And maybe a chance to silence some of the noise.

Contact Vincent Bonsignore at vbonsignore@reviewjournal.com. Follow @VinnyBonsignore on Twitter.

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