Ryan Poles explains Bears’ plan for ‘talented’ Alex Leatherwood

LAKE FOREST — The Bears were the only NFL team to claim waivers for offensive lineman Alex Leatherwood after he was released by the Las Vegas Raiders.

The No. 17 pick in the 2021 NFL Draft struggled at right tackle during his rookie season before the Silver and Black moved him inside to guard. He did well on the interior, but with a new regime coming this offseason, Leatherwood was released after a lackluster preseason in which head coach Josh McDaniels urged him to work on his fundamentals and technique.

Adding Leatherwood makes a lot of sense for a Bears team looking for as much talent as it can find.

Leatherwood is a physical specimen with a high football IQ who can play inside and outside. Leatherwood worked with a right tackle in his first practice with the Bears on Thursday, but Bears general manager Ryan Poles said they like Leatherwood playing multiple positions.

As the Bears did when they acquired N’Keal Harry, Poles hopes his coaching staff, led by offensive line coach Chris Morgan, can help Leatherwood polish the edges and reach the potential he showed at Alabama.

“I think the big thing is coming back, a talented player, certainly physically gifted,” Poles said of Leatherwood on Thursday. “A prototype in its size and movement. And then in terms of having that kind of success with him here, I think we all believe in player development here and we’ve put pieces in place to allow the players to be the best they can be. So, we’re going to approach it in a lot of different ways and give it a chance to evolve and grow. Forget about choosing a project. That’s over.

“So, let’s start on the ground floor. Let’s build you up and take your time, and whatever that is, we want to put it in the best position for success. Chris Morgan and his team and everybody around, from the weight room, we’re going to give it everything we’ve got.”

Leatherwood was dealt a bad hand in Las Vegas.

Entering the draft, Leatherwood was widely viewed as a second-round talent who would need to move inside to guard in order to thrive in the NFL. But Raiders head coach Jon Gruden and general manager Mike Mayock have made a habit of reaching for needs in the first round, especially for guys from blue-blood programs, and they did the same with Leatherwood.

The Raiders stunned everyone when they selected Leatherwood in the middle of the first round.

Slot picks aside, the 2021 Raiders were surrounded by turmoil. Leatherwood was thrown into the fire immediately at right tackle and asked to produce when he should have been given time to sit and develop. Instead, Leatherwood put together a string of poor performances on the right approach before going inside.

With Gruden fired midseason and Mayock on waivers afterward, Leatherwood found himself in the precarious position of being declared a first-round “drop” with a new coach and general manager coming in.

McDaniels and general manager Dave Ziegler saw everything they needed to during the offseason and training camp and moved on from Leatherwood on trade day.

The Bears scooped up Leatherwood and he arrived around midnight Thursday morning. He underwent a medical and was on the field with his new teammates before lunch.

“It was exciting,” Leatherwood said. “Just being able to have a new opportunity, to come to a new city, I’m super excited for the future.”

It makes sense that Leatherwood would work with the right approach, at least initially. Riley Reiff was the backup left tackle, but the second right tackle spot has been open since Teven Jenkins moved to right guard. Leatherwood’s versatility will help give the Bears a depth option at both tackle and guard.

Coming in with limited time to learn the Bears’ system doesn’t faze Leatherwood, who is confident he can impact the wide-area offense.

“I feel like I’m going to be a good fit,” Leatherwood said. “I’m strong and fast. I feel like no matter what it is, I’m just going to do my best to do it. It doesn’t matter what the scheme is.’

Leatherwood said he wouldn’t put a timeline on when he would be up to speed and ready to contribute.

This is good. With Jenkins manning the right guard spot and Larry Borrom seemingly handling the right job, the Bears can afford to be patient with Leatherwood while Morgan builds him into the best version of himself.

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