Leatherwood-Reiff platoon shows Bears looking to future

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LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- For most of the Bears' season, Alex Leatherwood has gone about his business in the background, slowly learning the system during the week while being inactive on Sundays.

But the Bears claimed Leatherwood and his contract prior to Week 1 for a reason. They believe in his talent and think he could be one of the future pieces of their offensive line.

After an early-season bout with mononucleosis, Leatherwood has finally reached a point where the Bears feel like he is ready to contribute on Sundays and show them if their initial evaluation of him is correct.

Leatherwood made his debut for the Bears in Week 13, playing 10 snaps in the 28-19 loss to the Green Bay Packers. The Bears plan to have a platoon at right tackle with Leatherwood and Riley Reiff during the final month of the season. It's unclear how the situation will change when Larry Borom returns from a knee injury.

"I’m extremely interested to see where he can go," offensive coordinator Luke Getsy said of Leatherwood on Thursday. "He’s a guy who got here and had a slow start and then gets sick. But now we’ve seen him get better each and every week so the opportunities will continue to grow for him."

While Leatherwood only played 10 snaps in Week 13, the Bears liked what they saw. The 2021 first-round pick held up well on the outside, including stonewalling an edge rusher to allow quarterback Justin Fields time to deliver a 56-yard strike to Equanimeous St. Brown.

"It was great. Alex played well." head coach Matt Eberflus said. "Overall, really nice performance by him. It doesn’t surprise us. We were anxious to get him in there and see how he would do. But it doesn’t surprise us because he’s had great maturation in the system, working inside and outside."

Eberflus and his staff have been consistent in their message that they will continue to do what gives the Bears the best chance to win each week and not make decisions based on the future.

But the platoon system on the offensive line seems contradictory to the company line.

"I just think it’s where the development of certain players are," Eberflus said Friday when asked why the Bears platoon on the O-line. "I think you put them in there and see how they do, then you build it from there. Everything’s based on performance. So if a guy performs well, we give him more to do. We always have to prove it first on the practice field. Once we start inching into the games, then you’ve got to prove it out there as well."

It took Leatherwood time to get back to full strength after battling mono. He lost 25 pounds and lost his wind.

He's in a comfortable place now, both with his body and knowledge of the scheme. The final four games will give Leatherwood a good opportunity to show the Bears if he can be part of their starting 2023 offensive line or if more resources will have to be devoted to that area in the offseason.

Leatherwood isn't focused on the big picture. He doesn't see the chances coming his way as a tryout for the future. He's staying in the present.

“Just focus on me and my team," Leatherwood said after the loss to the Packers when asked what he must do next. "Just narrow the scope on the things I need to do to be a better player each and every day. Do everything I can to commit myself to helping the team win.”

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The Bears are 3-10. Their playoff hopes have long since evaporated amid a six-game losing streak. Eberflus and his staff can say they are focused on finding wins during the final four weeks. I have no doubt they are.

But the decision to start easing Leatherwood in at right tackle is also one for the future. It's highly unlikely Reiff will be a Bear next season. Leatherwood is under contract for two more years. The Bears also have the right to exercise his fifth-year option should he play well.

The Bears need to find out what they have in Leatherwood. There's no time like the present.

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