The most controversial moment of the NFL Draft this year came when the Raiders chose former Alabama offensive tackle Alex Leatherwood with the 17th overall pick.
Stunned silence greeted the announcement. Draftniks, nearly one and all, said the tackle could’ve been had in the second round.
The skepticism was unfair to Leatherwood, who didn’t decide when he would be drafted, but these awkward moments happen every draft because media wisdom doesn’t always square with the NFL marketplace’s reality.
Lincoln Kennedy is a blocking expert who loved the pick.
The former Raiders All-Pro right tackle from Morse High said Leatherwood will fill a vital role in coach Jon Gruden’s offense, solving a problem that has often ailed Gruden and other Raiders coaches since Kennedy retired nearly 20 years ago.
“Alex is a darn good right tackle, so it will work out for itself,” Kennedy said by phone this week.
He added: “What I respect about Gruden and (GM) Mike Mayock is they draft to their board. For everybody who says, well, it’s not a sexy pick: Kolton Miller has worked out for us. I remember when people were booing the Kolton Miller pick, too (at No. 15 in 2018). Now, he’s a franchise left tackle.”
Kennedy said he began watching Leatherwood a few years ago after Raiders line coach Tom Cable told him about an Alabama freshman who played 44 snaps in the 2017 national title game when left tackle Jonah Williams was injured.
“I’ve been impressed with Alex,” he said. “His love from him for the game, it’s refreshing. Because you see so many guys that play this game today, you question whether they really enjoy being out there. So, I was ecstatic when the Raiders got him.”
Leatherwood finished his 48-game career with 41 consecutive starts.
A right guard in 2018, he played left tackle his final two seasons and won the Outland Trophy and first-team All-America honors.
NFL teams didn’t project him at left tackle, for a fair reason to lower his prospect grade, even with the increasingly blurred status between left and right tackles.
Along with SEC experience, Leatherwood has average size (6-foot-4½, 312 pounds) and desired arm length (33 7/8 inches). I have led this class of tackles in the vertical jump (34½) and broad jump (9-10).
NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah, the former Ravens, Browns and Eagles scout from El Cajon, rated him this year’s No. 62 prospect and the No. 8 tackle. Similarly minded, the 17 NFL scouts polled by The Athletic’s Bob McGinn had Leatherwood tied for 10th among offensive linemen and tied for seventh among tackles.
Saying he would’ve had no problem taking Leatherwood in the top-10, former NFL GM Randy Mueller defended the selection.
Kennedy, who said Leatherwood indeed was “out of position” at left tackle but filled a program need there, emphasized the rookie’s “grinding” style will suit the Raiders.
“What people need to realize about Gruden’s system is the run sets up the pass; it’s not a pass-first offense, never has been — and it struggles when it tries to become that,” said Kennedy, who played four seasons under Gruden in the 1990s and has observed the coach’s recent teams as a radio analyst on Raiders broadcasts. “The run is going to set up things.”
Kennedy said Leatherwood, 22, may not be ready to handle the speed rushes of AFC West rivals Joey Bosa and Von Miller without schematic help, but said Gruden will make those adjustments.
As for Leatherwood’s 17 penalties the past two years, which, per ESPN, tied him for second-most among FBS offensive linemen in that span, Kennedy said the blocker will improve his technique under Cable.
“More importantly, the main thing is, give them more confidence,” he said of a tackle’s development.
Since taking over the Raiders in 2018, Gruden hasn’t developed a reliable right tackle despite not skimping at the position. Brandon Parker hasn’t grown into the role since Gruden chose the North Carolina AT&T alum in the 2018 draft’s third round. Veteran Trent Brown, signed to a market-setting contract, missed half of the team’s starts across two years and went back to the Patriots in a recent trade.
Last year when Brown was able to suit up and play well, the Gruden offense looked formidable in wins at Cleveland and Kansas City. But that was the exception, one Leatherwood is expected to turn into a norm. Kennedy said Brown didn’t seem very enthusiastic about the job, at least with the Raiders. He said that isn’t a concern with Leatherwood.
“I’m really excited for him; I just love the fact that he enjoys football,” Kennedy said. “When you watch him play, he’s the type of guy that will throw you down and talk smack about you as he’s going down the field to try to pick up somebody else on another block. You don’t see that as much these days.”
The Raiders’ draft record of recent decades isn’t inspiring and that includes overdrafted right tackles Robert Gallery (second overall, 2004) and Menelik Watson (42nd, 2013).
But, if Leatherwood pans out, Gruden’s move won’t be remembered as a reach.