There are three positions that are always coveted at the top of NFL drafts no matter what the class shapes up to be. Can you name them?
The first one is easy: it's the quarterback position. No player on the field is more valuable than the one who is guaranteed to touch the ball every single play -- but enough about the center. Since the quarterback commands each play, they command the most value. Therefore, quarterbacks will always be sought after, especially by teams selecting near the top.
The next (in no order with these last two) are pass rushers. Knowing that the quarterback is the most important position on the field, assembling a pass rush arsenal of players who can affect the quarterback's mission and make him uncomfortable becomes paramount as a counter when playing defense. The more pass rushers you have the better.
Third, the area where the subject of our 5-Play column comes from, are pass protector, specifically offensive tackles. Knowing that opposing teams are going to emphasize having good pass rushers, you have to, in turn, build you team to protect your quarterback from such danger. That's where the big boys come in.
Alabama offensive tackle Alex Leatherwood is the latest highly regarded trench player from a long line of top Bama O-Linemen. As a 5-star prospect coming out of high school, Leatherwood has been on the NFL's radar for years. Even before he arrived in Tuscaloosa, people were marveling at the size, speed and strength combination Leatherwood brought to the game at 6-foot-6, 310 pounds.
Leatherwood got his first real college football action on the grandest stage, the 2017 National Championship. After appearing in seven games sporadically throughout the season, it was there that Leatherwood had to take over in the second half due to an injury. The Crimson Tide went on to win that game.
Leatherwood found a starting role the following year, but it was at right guard along the interior, not at right or left tackle. Leatherwood started all 15 games of that season at right guard, and looked both comfortable and powerful as the year went on. Here in 2019, Leatherwood has transitioned to the position NFL teams hopes is his home: left tackle. So far he's the focal point trench player leading a unit that has only yielded 10 sacks so far this season with Leatherwood not giving up a single one himself.
Leatherwood had the hype before he touched down in Tuscaloosa, he got some early playing time during his underclassmen years, and now he's finally getting a chance to prove himself at left tackle in a league that bring plenty of pass rush each week in the SEC.
Here's what I've noticed from Leatherwood in his first year as a full-time left tackle.
Play No. 1: Pass Protection Tools
The reason why this guy has been considered a top offensive tackle, first in his recruiting class, then at Alabama, and now potentially for the NFL, is because of how well he can move and how balanced he can be for a player his size. The play above shows a little bit of all that.
Leatherwood initially started his kick back with shorter stride, but once he realized that his man was trying to beat him deep around the edge, he effortlessly increased his stride length and increased his foot speed while remaining balanced for the initial contact. That's just smooth offensive line play, and a great showing of movement from a pass protector.
Leatherwood has the movement ability to mirror and stay in front of most edge rushers.
Play No. 2: Man On The Run
Moving right along (Get it, moving along? It's a pun. You know, because we're talking about mobility? You'll get it later.)
Leatherwood does not just show good movement skills when forming a bubble around the pocket. In fact, the area in which I am most impressed with how well he can move comes from when he's been asked to pull as a guard on power run plays. Leatherwood can flip his body and gain momentum in one smooth motion. Some of his best tape has been while he was a guard in 2018, and more than a few plays of that come from when he's asked to get up and out of his normal position. When taking on defenders in space, he's consistently square in how he engages with them, putting the defdnder in between his shoulder, neutralizing their threat and completing his task for the block.
Two traits to note here are the smoothness and explosiveness to get to the spot, and then remaining square and fundamental when he gets there.
Play No. 3: Inside Weakness
But the fundamentals we referenced in the play above aren't always there, especially when handling inside counter moves.
Leatherwood presents an NFL team with a lot of tools to develop as a tackle, but he is not as technically sounds as you might want him to be right now. Remember, this is his first year as a starting left tackle, so the lack of time at the position is certainly worth noting. But there are times when he's a tick slow to recognize what an attacker is doing, both to the inside and outside. His recognition and anticipation are still a work in progress, and that is likely why his fundamentals appear to be inconsistent.
Play No. 4: Hand-To-Hand Combat
I wanted to make sure I snuck this clip in here because, though it is of Leatherwood at guard once again and we're hoping he can remain at tackle, this rep was him going up against Auburn defensive tackle Derrick Brown. Brown is a good opponent to watch Leatherwood take on because Brown is considered to be a Top 10 prospect by many scouts.
In the clip above, you can see Leatherwood hand fighting the quick and powerful Brown every step of the way, not yielding any ground, leverage or position. This is what you love to see as from Leatherwood. His hands aren't always where they need to be, but when he uses them correctly he's tough for even the best pass rushers to deal with.
Play No. 5: Strength to Anchor
It took us all the way to play No. 5 to mention what Leatherwood does best.
When he gets his hands on you, he's tough to overpower. Leatherwood has the athleticism to stay in front of defenders, but then also has the strength and the hips to buckle down and anchor once he's got you in his mitts. Bull rushers beware, this guy doesn't give up ground easy.
So far Leatherwood is progressing nicely. He still has room to grow, and with a handful of games to go still this season, hopefully we'll get to see that come to life. Look out for his teammate on the right side, too, Jedrick Wills, who is also having a great year. These two have the potential to both be Top 50 tackles in the 2020 NFL Draft.