Over the next few months, we’ll be taking an in-depth look at each of the Jets’ rookies. We continue today with offensive lineman Alijah Vera-Tucker.
Vera-Tucker was selected with the 14th overall pick in last month’s draft having started 19 games in three seasons at USC. He was the winner of the Morris Trophy and an all-PAC 12 first-team selection in 2020.
Vera-Tucker was a four-star prospect and an Under Armour All-American coming out of high school. He chose to attend USC over several other schools and red-shirted the 2017 season.
In 2018, Vera-Tucker saw regular action off the bench at right guard and on special teams, then moved into a full-time role as the starting left guard in 2019. He started all 13 games and was a second team all-PAC 12 selection.
Vera-Tucker decided not to enter the 2020 draft and started all six games at left tackle in the shortened 2020 season. He was a first-team all-PAC 12 selection and was awarded the Morris Trophy as the PAC 12’s best offensive lineman.
The Jets traded up from 23 to 14 in order to draft Vera-Tucker with their second pick in last month’s draft.
Now let’s take a look at what Vera-Tucker brings to the table, divided into categories.
Vera-Tucker was listed at 315 pounds at USC but weighed in at 308 for his pro day. That’s plenty big enough for a wide zone blocking system though. Despite being over 6’4”, Vera Tucker has short arms and that’s part of the reason most experts projected him as an NFL guard despite the fact he played well at tackle in 2020.
His athletic numbers are very good across the board with a 5.13 in the 40-yard dash, very good explosiveness and agility numbers and 32 bench press reps.
While athletic ability among offensive linemen is often assumed to be showcased in things like running downfield ahead of screen passes, it manifests in Vera-Tucker’s performance in his explosive first step, by how quickly he moves his feet in tight areas, and how he will change direction when reacting or recovering.
All the post-draft discussion seems to suggest the plan for Vera-Tucker is to move him to left guard so he can play alongside last year’s top pick, Mekhi Becton. That’s where he played in 2019, representing 13 of his 19 career starts and almost two-third of his offensive snaps at USC.
He also played at right guard in 2018 and was the left tackle in 2020, so he potentially has the versatility to play other positions if the Jets have to reshuffle the pack due to injuries or could move positions later in his career.
Vera-Tucker played one snap as a jumbo package tight end in college and was also a defensive end in high school.
Vera-Tucker’s pass protection numbers were extremely good at USC, which was surprising because their offensive line as a whole was pretty inconsistent. In his first 18 starts, Vera-Tucker gave up just nine total pressures, with just one sack that came on a mental lapse rather than someone beating him.
In the final game of his career against Oregon, however, Vera-Tucker got beaten several times and was credited with having given up two sacks. There are three key things to note about this game though.
The first is that a lot of his reps saw him forced to go one on one with Kayvon Thibodeuax, one of the nation’s best pass rushers and a player many believe could be a top-10 pick next year. While Thibodeaux wasn’t the only player to beat him in that game, it’s also true that Vera-Tucker had some reps where he was left on an island against him and handled himself well.
The second key point to note is that Vera-Tucker wasn’t 100 percent during this game and it may have affected him in terms of his ability to stay in front of his man.
The final point is that if he’s moving back inside with the Jets, as appears to be the case, then an inability to stay in front of NFL-level speed rushers is largely mitigated.
In terms of what he does display when pass protecting, Vera-Tucker has quick feet to stay on top of his man and displays an ability to recover quickly after an initial loss of leverage, driving his feet and working his hands to get control back.
Although he lacks the ideal length, he still uses what length he has well, with a combination of strength and hand placement enabling him to extend his arms to buy himself an extra split-second to move his feet and establish a solid base.
Here’s a good example of his ability to anchor against a bull rush to buy his quarterback extra time.
Vera-Tucker has been targeted because he’s a fit for the wide zone system the Jets will run under offensive line coach John Benton. He has the athleticism to be effective within such a system at the pro level, as he shows here.
On the play, he is athletic enough to get to his man’s outside shoulder but is under control in space and shows a good understanding of angles in how he engages the linebacker.
Within zone based systems, guards typically don’t pull or trap very much, but the 49ers often used this as a tendency breaker and it’s something Vera-Tucker can do effectively.
His strength at the point of attack is also a major asset. When he gets his hands inside and keeps his pad level low, he can get some good traction to drive his man out of the play.
Vera-Tucker also works well in tandem with his other linemen on combo blocks and has the ability to peel off and make impact blocks at the second level.
In terms of weaknesses, there were times when he allowed his man to penetrate initially before gaining traction in the trenches and sometimes his initial punch was repelled so he might need to get more consistent with the timing and accuracy of that to prevent NFL-level players from being able to shed his blocks.
In short yardage situations, the Trojans often ran behind Vera-Tucker, who shows an ability to blow his man off the line and create some running lanes.
While Vera-Tucker should be good at running out in front of a screen pass, based on his ability to climb to the second level in the running game, this was an area where USC’s offense as a whole fared poorly over the past few years.
They tended to spread out and throw a receiver screen out wide more than they would release their offensive linemen to get out in front of a dump off to a back and when they did attempt the latter, timing issues usually made it ineffective.
Here’s one example, however, that sees Vera-Tucker picking up a linebacker and driving him downfield.
Vera-Tucker has good balance and looks under control but there are still a few technical tweaks he could be well served to make.
When he is able to get his hands inside, he has excellent grip strength and control, but when he doesn’t he has a tendency to narrow his base as he’ll engage the defender higher up.
If he can be more consistent with his hand placement and pad level, that would help him to cut down on negative plays.
One key that Vera-Tucker will bring to the running game is his ability to make a reach block. His technique here is excellent as he gets across the face of the defender with a quick first stride, then keeps his feet moving as he secures the leverage advantage to keep his man pinned to the inside.
On this play, Vera-Tucker is aligned at left tackle and reaches the defensive tackle but once he’s at left guard with the Jets, he could potentially reach block the nose tackle. This will make the Jets more effective running to the right in addition to the wide zone stretch plays going left behind Vera-Tucker and Becton which are expected to be a staple.
In pass protection, his ability to mirror and recover usually means he can repel the initial move and react to a counter, but on this play he overreacts to an inside jab step and this time he can’t step across in time as the edge defender gets past him with an arm-over move.
Like most of the linemen targeted over the past few seasons, Vera-Tucker’s on-field discipline has been good. He was penalty-free in his 2018 backup role, had just two penalties in 2019 and had two again in 2020.
Both his 2020 penalties were for holding but in each case they tell you something about his attitude.
On this play, he initially controls his man well, but loses leverage late and the quarterback hesitates and is slow to get the ball out. Vera-Tucker concedes the holding penalty here with a grab as the edge defender gets off his block, essentially choosing to surrender the flag rather than allow his man to get a hit on the quarterback.
His other holding penalty came on a play where he dominated his man at the point of attack and drove him well off the line. He just got a bit carried away in terms of finishing the block and tackled his man to the ground although the ball carrier was already long gone. While an unnecessary flag, this had more to do with Vera-Tucker getting caught up in battle for control and asserting his dominance.
He only had one personal foul in his career, although it was a costly one because it negated a 43-yard play.
Vera-Tucker only contributed on the field goal unit in 2020 but had also played a role on the punt protection unit and as a blocker on kickoff returns earlier on in his career.
While, realistically, the most he’d probably be expected to do at the NFL level would be to block on the field goal unit again, he did show his ability to make a block in space on this long return.
Vera-Tucker is regarded as having an excellent football IQ and he displays this in how he moves from assignment to assignment in the running game and plays with his head on a swivel in pass protection. He’ll display good awareness to give some help to his fellow linemates, even when already engaged with a defender.
Usually, he does a good job of handling stunts and picking up blitzes but here’s a play where he uncharacteristically failed to recognize the A-gap blitz until it was too late, leading to a sack.
Vera-Tucker was a team captain and leader at USC and head coach Clay Helton waxed lyrical about his character, saying that he was a joy to coach with a blue collar work ethic. Helton described him as an overachiever and dedicated to improving.
He has a humble and quiet personality but a nasty edge on the field. He’ll often jump into a pile to drive it forwards and when he locks onto a block, you’ll often see him drive that player well off the line and out of the picture.
With that said, there were a few rare occasions where he was standing around at the end of a play before the ball had gone dead.
Vera-Tucker didn’t miss any time in college, but was slowed by a hamstring injury in that bowl game performance against Oregon which saw him get beaten a few times in pass protection.
As the Jets admitted even before the draft took place, they were looking at prioritizing someone who would be a good fit in their wide zone system and have clearly identified Vera-Tucker as someone who fits in well with what they plan to do and the other pieces they have in place.
Vera-Tucker also played in a zone-based running game at USC, where he was briefly a teammate of current Jets offensive lineman Chuma Edoga.
USC’s offensive coordinator was Graham Harrell who was briefly with the Jets as a quarterback in preseason several years ago.
Vera-Tucker has all the tools to be a great player and can be even more effective than he was in college if he sharpens up his technique now he’ll be getting NFL coaching and going up against some good defensive linemen every day in practice.
The wisdom of moving up to get Vera-Tucker when they could instead have opted to draft a slightly worse offensive line prospect and perhaps addressed more other needs with the picks they used to move up is open for debate. However, the Jets had identified Vera-Tucker very early on as someone they really wanted for their system and they were thrilled to be able to land him where they did.
Hopefully this is a pick which brings the Jets another step closer to being in a position to field one of the league’s better offensive lines over the next several years. It’s clear that if all goes to plan, this will be a key tenet of their offensive identity.