General manager Mike Mayock knew the choice of Alex Leatherwood with the 17th pick in the NFL draft would be controversial as soon as the analysis came in from the pundits on television.
The Las Vegas Raiders once again used a first-round pick on a player projected to go far lower in the draft.
“They were saying they could have had him in the second round and, ‘blah, blah, blah,’” Mayock said Thursday night. “I understand that. The fan base is going to listen to that and the fan base is going to question it.”
The pick of Leatherwood, who was widely projected to be a second-round pick, follows selections in recent years of players like Clelin Ferrell, Johnathan Abram and Damon Arnette at spots much higher than were expected.
The Raiders made all those picks without trading down to get more draft capital. Mayock said he and coach Jon Gruden had one offer to move down but described it as “poor” and from a team needing a tackle, so they stayed put.
Mayock said the Raiders liked Leatherwood’s versatility to play tackle and guard and his aggressiveness, and believes he will help make the running game behind back Josh Jacobs more dynamic.
He said Leatherwood was offensive line coach Tom Cable’s “favorite player in the draft.”
“Coach Cable has been all over him for months now since the first time he saw the tape,” Mayock said. “Coach Gruden loves this guy. Our scouts love this guy. What I like is when the second floor in our building, which is all the coaches, and the third floor, which is all the scouts, when we’re united on a conversation like Leatherwood. That makes me feel really good about the pick.”
Leatherwood has started 41 games the past three seasons at both right guard and left tackle. Mayock said Leatherwood will step in immediately as the starter at right tackle in place of Trent Brown, who was traded to New England this offseason for a 2022 draft pick.
Leatherwood said the low draft projections will serve as fuel but he’s more focused on proving the Raiders right than others wrong.
“I’m not the type of dude to get caught up in all that garbage, because I know what my film said about me and the GM and the coach, they know that as well,” he said. “I’m just grateful that they watched that film and they saw me as good enough to be the 17th overall pick.”
The Raiders also dealt away two more expensive veterans for mid-round draft picks by trading center Rodney Hudson and right guard Gabe Jackson as the team aimed to get younger and cheaper on the line.
Gruden wants to build his line around Leatherwood and 2018 first-round left tackle Kolton Miller, who signed a contract extension this offseason. Las Vegas also has veteran Richie Incognito at left guard, former undrafted free agent Andre James at center, the versatile Denzelle Good at right guard, along with depth players like Nick Martin and recent draft picks John Simpson and Brandon Parker.
Despite spending the most money in the NFL on the offensive line in 2020, the Raiders didn’t get that level of production as they struggled in run blocking. Las Vegas has had one of the better pass blocking lines for most of quarterback Derek Carr’s career and hope the new additions can maintain that.
Gruden opted to bolster the line in the first round instead of a defense that ranked last in the NFL in points allowed (28.4 per game) and second worst in yards per play allowed (6.05) in three years under Gruden.
Las Vegas fired coordinator Paul Guenther in December and have hired Gus Bradley to take over. The Raiders added pass rusher Yannick Ngakoue in free agency and are hoping for growth from a young secondary that includes recent high draft picks Damon Arnette and Trayvon Mullen at cornerback and Johnathan Abram at safety.
“We need to get a lot better on defense,” Mayock said. “We recognize that. We hope to get a lot better this weekend. We got three picks tomorrow. I’m hoping that the board comes to us and we can take three really good football players tomorrow.”
The Raiders have pick 48 in the second round and picks 79 and 80 in the third round on Friday, along with four more picks on Saturday.
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