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Could Alijah Vera-Tucker’s ability to fill in at tackle influence Jets’ draft strategy?

NFL: New York Jets at Pittsburgh Steelers

Prior to being lost for the year with a season ending-injury, Jets guard Alijah Vera-Tucker showcased some impressive versatility during the 2022 season. While it’s widely assumed that was just an emergency measure, could these abilities impact upon the Jets’ plan heading into the 2023 draft?

Despite having played left tackle in his senior year at USC, the plan for Vera-Tucker was always to play him at guard after having moved up for him in the 2021 draft. Even so, he already displayed some positional versatility at the start of the 2022 season by moving from the left side to the right side to accommodate the incoming Laken Tomlinson.

That wasn’t a major transition for Vera-Tucker, who played right guard in 2018 at USC and then moved to the left side in 2019. However, when he lined up as the starting left tackle to begin the Jets’ fourth game of the season this was completely unexpected.

Injury issues persisted over the next few weeks with Vera-Tucker remaining at tackle, but moving over to the right side and who knows what would have happened over the last 10 games of the season if Vera-Tucker didn’t suffer a season-ending pectoral tear in week seven?

Generally speaking, most analysts agree that Vera-Tucker making these moves and still holding his own was impressive, but probably isn’t optimizing his abilities as much as leaving him to thrive at his best position. Nevertheless, it does prove useful in terms of adjusting on the fly or getting the best five on the field together when you’re short-handed.

The Jets have massive levels of uncertainty at tackle with all of their returning potential starters coming off an injury (or in Max Mitchell’s case a long-term medical issue). Having Vera-Tucker potentially available to provide emergency depth does provide some peace of mind though. The plan is obviously to begin the offseason with him back in a starting guard role, though.

If we recap those four games he played at tackle last year, did Vera-Tucker show enough to establish himself as a viable short-term option?

Let’s start with the good:

The main thing to note about those four games is that the Jets went 4-0. By contrast, they were 1-2 with Vera-Tucker at guard and 2-8 with him on injured reserve.

Within those games, Vera-Tucker didn’t give up a sack or even a quarterback hit. In addition, the unit blocked well as a group and had their most consistent four game stretch of the season in terms of the running game, averaging 147 yards per week.

On the negative side, the team won in large part in spite of its offense. They played very conservatively and relied on big plays in all four games with Zach Wilson back under center.

Looking back on those games puts into perspective that while the Jets did will to overcome their injury issues, it’s not like they were an offensive powerhouse in those wins.

The Steelers game (with TJ Watt not playing) was a poor offensive performance that saw them win on a late drive after some key Pittsburgh turnovers kept them in it. They racked up 40 points against Miami, but 21 of those points came in the fourth quarter. The Packers win saw them break open a tight game on a blocked punt and a long touchdown run on a broken play. Finally, the Denver game relied on the defense holding on after an early long touchdown run by Hall highlighted another quiet offensive performance.

If PFF grades are your thing, then these indicate that Vera-Tucker was less effective as a tackle. In the game where he got injured, he only played 16 snaps and two of his other three games at tackle saw him post his lowest grades of the season.

Nevertheless, Vera-Tucker spent less than a month in this role, so we can’t know for sure which way things would have gone over a longer period. Would Vera-Tucker settle into that role and become more consistent? Or would teams start figuring out how to exploit the reasons he was moved inside in the first place?

One of those issues is his lack of length, an issue that was discussed on this site a few days ago in the context of what Peter Skoronski’s eventual NFL position is going to be.

Within that article, successful former NFL linemen cautioned that arm length is an over-discussed issue and that players can overcome this if they are good technically - which Skoronski and Vera-Tucker (whose arms are even shorter than Skoronski’s) obviously are.

Even so, the list of players in recent years to play long-term as a tackle despite having short arms isn’t very long either. Recently, Liam Eichenberg and Justin Pugh initially saw plenty of action at tackle, which may or may not have been the original plan. Each has tellingly moved to guard since then, anyway.

Ex-Jet Breno Giacomini is essentially the only recent long-term full-time tackle with that kind of length deficiency - and he was okay, but would struggle at times, especially late in his career where age or injuries slowed him down so he could no longer rely on his athleticism to stay in front of his man.

If the Jets draft a lineman, they will be looking ahead. They won’t just be looking at the current depth chart and thinking that Tomlinson and Vera-Tucker are locked in at guard so they need to find someone who can play tackle. At the same time, they wouldn’t just draft a guard in the knowledge that they can move Vera-Tucker if they have to find a spot for him.

It’s likely they view this potential positional flexibility as a good thing, and may need to lean on Vera-Tucker or others to switch roles if they have a run of injuries like they did last year again. However, the plan is going to involve finding five starters and putting them into the best role within which they can thrive.

As useful as it is to have someone as talented as Vera-Tucker that can move from position to position and not miss a beat, if all goes to plan, he’ll start 17 games at the same position. In a perfect world, his four starting linemates will too. We don’t live in a perfect world though, so it’s good to know the Jets are equipped to adjust on the fly - whoever they draft.