INDIANAPOLIS — The spotlight will be on the offensive linemen on Friday at the NFL Scouting Combine. As roughly 60 draft prospects from schools ranging from Alabama to Culver-Stockton hit the field at Lucas Oil Stadium, the Raiders will be among the teams watching most intently.
As they simultaneously evaluate all the various draft options and free-agent possibilities to help improve a unit that struggled mightily in 2021, the Raiders will continue to ponder what to do with second-year offensive lineman Alex Leatherwood. In many ways, the 23-year-old Alabama prospect is a key to what direction the Raiders take along the offensive line this offseason.
Specifically, do they move him back to right tackle, the position they had in mind when they selected him 17th overall in last year’s draft? Or do they keep him at right guard, where he played the majority of his rookie season after a series of events left them vulnerable along the interior of their offensive line?
For the moment, the Raiders are being open-minded as they continue to evaluate Leatherwood’s 2021 tape and allow a more complete picture of the offensive line to develop.
“We’re not going to pigeonhole him by saying he’s this or he’s that,” said Raiders general manager Dave Ziegler. “We’re going to let him create an opportunity for himself. We’ll be excited to be able to work with him.”
Leatherwood wasn’t particularly impressive at either spot last year, and his shaky play at right tackle was one of the reasons the Raiders opted to slide him over to guard after Denzelle Good went down with a season-ending knee injury and Jermaine Eluemunor struggled to replace him.
According to Pro Football Focus, Leatherwood graded out 80th among 82 qualifying guards last year. He struggled especially in pass blocking.
That isn’t to say his season was a complete bust, though. There were segments during games in which he was a dominant, punishing run blocker.
He just didn’t do it consistently enough. Compound that with committing the fourth-most penalties in NFL — 11 total, including seven false starts — it all added up to a disappointing season considering where he was selected in the draft.
“There’s good and there’s bad,” Raiders head coach Josh McDaniels offered regarding Leatherwood’s game film. “But when you’re that young, you look at it as what can we work with, what can we fix? There’s a lot to do in that process. I’ve already spoken to him. That process is underway.”
On the positive side, McDaniels and Ziegler are intrigued by a player who possesses all the necessary traits to succeed in the NFL. He’s also played 1,104 snaps across 17 regular-season games and one playoff game. The experience gained, according to Ziegler, is invaluable from a development and evaluation standpoint.
“When you get a lot of playing time as a rookie, just like any of us on our first year on a job, you learn things that you’re good at. You learn things that you need to improve at,” said Ziegler. “You kind of get exposed to things you never even thought about.”
In Leatherwood’s case, that includes moving from the left tackle position he played in college to right tackle in the NFL, only to switch to guard four games into his rookie year. That is an incredible amount of disruption for anyone, let alone a young player, over a 12-month span.
“What we’re going to focus on is fundamentals, technique,” McDaniels said. “What can he do better as a football player? Forget about the position. Then we’ll worry about tackle to guard, guard to tackle as we get into more football-specific things.”
Over time, and as the roster comes into better focus, a decision will be made on Leatherwood’s landing spot.
“What we’ll end up doing is whatever’s best for the Raiders,” McDaniels said. “He’s shown the ability to play in both spots. But we see him being a contributor. We see him being a guy that we’re really excited to work with. We’re going to try to get the most out of him.”