Back in April, the NFL Draft community was taken by surprise when the Las Vegas Raiders selected Alex Leatherwood with the 17th overall pick. Many felt this was another reach for a player from a big-name program by the Raiders because Leatherwood was given a consensus second-round grade, per NFL Mock Draft Database. Also, several NFL Draft pundits felt he was better suited to play guard at the next level.
The skepticism surrounding the Alabama product stems from his struggles as a pass protector in college, and the numbers somewhat justify the doubts people have.
Last season, Leatherwood recorded 132 “true pass sets” (TPS) on 474 pass-blocking snaps, which comes out to about 27.8 percent, per Pro Football Focus. He posted an efficiency rate of 96.4 and allowed seven pressures on such plays, which ranked tied for 22nd and tied for 29th among FBS draft-eligible offensive tackles, respectively.
While those numbers aren’t terrible, they do raise some cause for concern.
For comparison’s sake, Kolton Miller’s percentage of TPS was bout 52 percent a year ago. How many TPSs an offensive lineman executes is primarily determined by play-calling, so Leatherwood will likely be asked to play in a pass-protection scheme that’s significantly different than what he’s used to. Plus, he’ll be executing a technique that he didn’t have as much success with, assuming the percentage above remains consistent.
(For a detailed explanation of TPS, read this article from Eric Eager of PFF)
Diving into some figures from Sports Info Solutions continues to highlight some of the first-round pick’s struggles protecting the quarterback. He had a blown pass block percentage of 3.2 percent in 2020, per SIS, which was the highest rate among Alabama offensive linemen and ranked 33rd among SEC tackles. The site also credited Leatherwood with a pedestrian 0.83 points earned above average when pass blocking, placing him 19th in the conference.
While these stats are concerning, they’re far from the end all be all. Leatherwood is athletic enough to improve in pass protection, as evidenced by his elite Relative Athletic Score seen below.
So, that begs the question of what does his tape look like? Does he show signs of being able to improve on his true pass sets? And most importantly, what are his strengths as a pass protector and where can he improve?
Really like Alex Leatherwood's pacing and UOH here pic.twitter.com/o5DC8gWHhg— Matt Holder (@MHolder95) August 5, 2021
The first thing that stands out about the clip above is Leatherwood’s pacing. He relies on his foot quickness to stay in front of the pass rusher as the rusher works to the outside instead of panicking, working for too much depth and/or width and oversetting.
Then, he has some decent timing with his hands to make contact with the defender shortly after the defender engages him. That, combined with getting his hands inside, allows Leatherwood to use his long arms to get extension on the rusher and prevent him from being able to make a move.
The tackle’s strength is also on display here as he’s able to get a little lift with his initial punch, and controls and steers the defensive lineman throughout the rep.
This might be one of the most encouraging reps I've seen from Leatherwood in pass-pro— Matt Holder (@MHolder95) August 5, 2021
-Excellent get off and foot quickness dropping into his set to stay in front of the PR
-Strong hands and rides the PR's momentum right past the QB pic.twitter.com/V7gCIXNjs8
Here we’re going to see a very good rep on an NFL-level pass set. Leatherwood pops off the screen initially with his get-off as he’s one the first offensive linemen off the ball, and he shows some quick feet while moving backward to help stay in front of a speed rusher.
At the point of contact, we’re going to see another nice and firm punch where he lands his outside hand on No. 18’s chest. Once Leatherwood gets that inside arm and hand involved, his strength comes into play again and he can ride the pass rusher right past the quarterback. This is an excellent play from the Alabama product and something to build on moving forward.
This blitz pickup is harder than it looks but Leatherwood has excellent awareness to pick it up pic.twitter.com/kgwL6BrCFt— Matt Holder (@MHolder95) August 5, 2021
For this next clip, we’ll look at the sideline view since it does a better job of showing the blitz that Georgia is running. One of Leatherwood’s strengths as a pass protector is his ability to recognize and pick up blitzes, and that’s going to be put to the test here.
The Bulldogs are sending their slot corner which is designed to catch a lot of tackles by surprise since the pressure is coming from outside of the box. If the offensive lineman doesn’t get his head around in time, the defensive back will run right by him and go make the sack. To make things more difficult, the outside backer is selling the rush with his first few steps, so it can be easy for the tackle to get distracted and miss the blitzer completely.
However, Leatherwood recognizes where the pressure is coming from and who the most dangerous threat to the quarterback is, uses his size advantage to absorb the nickel and squander Georgia’s blitz. That’s some excellent mental processing from the first-round pick.
Not so pretty, punches too early and ends up off balance to lose the edge pic.twitter.com/uU5g13x4FM— Matt Holder (@MHolder95) August 5, 2021
While we’ve seen a few clips where Leatherwood has decent to good timing with his punch, his consistency in that area is off and that’s the biggest difference between this clip and the first one above.
His pacing is great here again, but he shoots his hands too early which leads to him failing for a couple of reasons. Leatherwood is too far away from the defensive lineman when he punches, so he ends up barely making contact, falling off balance and has to stop his feet to stay upright. Also, the pass rusher has a big target – the offensive lineman’s arm – for the initial chop on his pass rush move and has more room to operate and execute the move.
All of that causes Leatherwood to lose and get beat around the edge.
No hands + drifting = one dangerous sack pic.twitter.com/NlWnlSSmwW— Matt Holder (@MHolder95) August 6, 2021
Here, we’re going to see him not use his hands at all. This four-technique is going to work outside which should favor the offensive lineman. But during the rep, it looks like the Alabama product is second-guessing when he should throw his punch and ends up with his hands way too low. Because he can’t get a hold of and control the rusher, Leatherwood can’t stop the rusher’s momentum which leads to a very dangerous sack of Mac Jones.
To compound those issues, the offensive lineman is also drifting toward the quarterback while working to get to the setpoint and that creates a shorter path for the defensive lineman. Drifting is something that showed up a few times on Leatherwood’s tape and needs to be corrected immediately as that’s a quick way to get the man under center banged up.
Von Miller loves this move so Leatherwood is gonna have to clean this one up in a hurry pic.twitter.com/1akw3HCGWz— Matt Holder (@MHolder95) August 6, 2021
This next clip is actually a pretty good rep from No. 30 but does provide another example of Leatherwood’s punch timing creating issues. As he drops in his set, he’s waiting for the defensive end to come to him to shoot his hands but waits too long, and the end has an extremely quick initial chop to swat the tackle’s arms away.
Making matters worse, Leatherwood bites on the inside fake and stops his feet so at that point, he has no chance to stay in front and hold down the edge. This is something he needs to clean up soon as this is a move that’s a staple in Von Miller’s pass rush arsenal.
We’ll wrap things up on a positive note. While the camera angle on the play above couldn’t be worse, there are still a bunch of positives to uncover about Leatherwood’s pass set.
First, the initial quickness and fast feet that we saw on a few of the clips stand out as he flies out of his stance and beats Maxx Crosby to the spot. Then, he has perfect timing with his outside arm – very encouraging to see – where he makes contact with Crosby first and has the strength to slow Crosby’s momentum and prevent him from being able to make a move. Maxx does an excellent job of not giving up and fighting through the whistle, but Leatherwood just moves his feet and this is a big ‘W’ for the offense.