The 6-foot-5, 312-pound Leatherwood was new and he was quiet. The Bears placed his locker next to Jenkins’ own and Jenkins didn’t know if this former first-round pick might be here to take his job.
“On the field, he’s an athletic freak,” Jenkins said.
That much has always been apparent. Leatherwood has the skillset that prompted the Las Vegas Raiders to select him with the 17th overall pick in the 2021 draft. But he struggled as a rookie at both right tackle and right guard, and when the Raiders hired a new coaching staff, things quickly went south.
The Raiders waived Leatherwood at the 53-man cut down deadline and the Bears claimed him a day later. During a season where the Bears are testing out promising young talent all across the field, Leatherwood might be the most intriguing project of them all.
At least part of the reason why is because he still hasn’t played a snap for his new team. For the 23-year-old Leatherwood, the last three months have been the ultimate reset button on his young career. He has had a chance to focus on his craft in practice, without the spotlight of a starting role.
“It gives you the opportunity to step back, take a deep breath, regroup, and just make the main thing the main thing,” Leatherwood told Shaw Local. “That’s why it’s beneficial. No real added pressure or anxiety as a player to perform.”
With first-round picks come expectations. Leatherwood started all 17 games in Las Vegas last year, but he struggled in pass protection. When he arrived at Halas Hall, the Bears vowed to take a more methodical approach.
“Forget the draft pick thing,” general manager Ryan Poles said days after claiming Leatherwood. “That’s over. So let’s start from the ground floor.”
That’s exactly what the Bears have done.
Leatherwood likened this season to being a freshman in college. At a big-time football powerhouse like Alabama, where Leatherwood played, that usually means riding the bench.
“I think you just build him up,” Bears offensive line coach Chris Morgan said. “Whether it’s technically, whether it’s muscle memory, whether it’s confidence in the playbook.”
With starting right tackle Riley Reiff (back) and backup Larry Borom (ankle/knee) both suffering injuries last week against the New York Jets, there could be an opportunity for Leatherwood at right tackle in the coming weeks. Reiff returned to practice in a limited capacity Thursday, but Borom remained sidelined.
Regardless of whether Reiff starts this week against the Green Bay Packers, this is the time of year when injuries start to pile up. Leatherwood said he is fully prepared to play if the team needs him during the final five games.
Head coach Matt Eberflus said this week that Leatherwood has worked at both guard and tackle. Leatherwood said it all comes back to finding a comfortability at both positions.
“Where I’m comfortable is where I spend the most time,” Leatherwood said. “So, it doesn’t matter if it’s inside or outside, if I can get comfortable at one place or even two places at one time, then that’s what I like the most.”
The Bears haven’t been afraid to move around their young linemen. Jenkins is a perfect example. He was buried on the depth chart during training camp until the coaches moved him from right tackle to right guard.
Jenkins, who was the 39th overall draft pick in the same draft as Leatherwood, was up front in August about his “rollercoaster” training camp. At one point he thought he might be traded. In some ways, he can relate to the adversity Leatherwood faced in Las Vegas.
“We’re trying to get each other better,” Jenkins said. “I feel like him coming in ultimately got me better because he brought in knowledge. I mean, he went to Alabama, great school, great college, they have an endless amount of information. Then he went to the Raiders, they have different philosophies. So he brings other insight. He also played a lot of games.”
To go from a first-round pick to a backup in just over a year could be a humbling experience, but it’s one that Leatherwood has embraced.
“It’s given me the opportunity to tune everything out and just focus on me,” Leatherwood said. “More importantly, my teammates, this team and things like that. I mean, yeah, I’m here. I’ve been here. Mostly just getting a scout look and things like that. But those things, they matter too.”
Injury report: Bears quarterback Justin Fields (shoulder) returned to full participation in practice Thursday, as did receiver Chase Claypool (knee). Tackle Riley Reiff (back) and cornerback Kindle Vildor (ankle) were limited participants.
Tackle Larry Borom (ankle/knee), safety Jaquan Brisker (concussion), cornerback Kyler Gordon (concussion), receiver Dante Pettis (illness) and quarterback Trevor Siemian (oblique) did not practice.