The New York Jets’ gamble on Alijah Vera-Tucker is paying off
While the 2021 season has mostly been a wash for the New York Jets, one of several rookies thrown into battle from the get-go has been showing a tremendous amount of promise: rookie guard Alijah Vera-Tucker.
For the second consecutive NFL draft, Joe Douglas appears to have turned a first-round pick into an immediate star on the offensive line for the Jets.
Due to a pectoral injury in training camp, Vera-Tucker missed all of the preseason and was in for a rough debut against the Carolina Panthers as he took his first NFL snaps. He allowed a team-high six pressures in Week 1.
From there, Vera-Tucker has rapidly improved on a weekly basis. He went on to earn Pro Football Focus’ highest grade among all offensive linemen in Week 5 with a stunning mark of 92.5. From Weeks 4-7, he only allowed two pressures in three games.
The Jets selected Vera-Tucker with the 14th overall pick in the 2021 NFL draft after Douglas made a trade to advance from the 26th overall pick acquired from Seattle via the Jamal Adams trade. Douglas traded away the 26th pick along with both of the Jets’ third-round picks (66th and 86th overall) to the Minnesota Vikings to make the leap, yielding the USC product.
Douglas rightfully continued to put emphasis on bolstering the offensive line with young and talented players to protect new quarterback Zach Wilson, attacking the line in both the 2020 and 2021 offseasons via trade, free agency, and premium draft assets.
However, many initially challenged the decision to move up for Vera-Tucker due to the price tag. The Jets’ roster had many glaring holes that needed to be addressed in the draft, but Douglas obviously felt comfortable parting with some of his many picks to secure an elite prospect to protect their young QB.
Vera-Tucker has come into his own after an up-and-down few games to open the season. He has only allowed one sack thus far (coming in the opener at Carolina) and boasts a strong 76.0 overall PFF grade that ranks eighth-best among left guards.
Most notably, Vera-Tucker has been excelling in the run game to pave gaps for the Jets’ talented tandem of young running backs, Michael Carter and Ty Johnson. The Jets are averaging 4.0 yards per carry when rushing toward either side of Vera-Tucker (left-side A-gap or left-side B-gap) compared to only 3.4 yards per carry in any other direction.
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Vera-Tucker helps to anchor the refurbished left side of an offensive line that is currently in the midst of a revolving door at left tackle. Mekhi Becton has been out since Week 1 with a knee injury, and replacement George Fant recently went down in the Jets’ Halloween thriller against the Cincinnati Bengals with an ankle injury. Vera-Tucker finished the game working alongside Chuma Edoga and may do so against the Colts on Thursday night.
Over his tenure as the Jets’ general manager, Douglas has been quite active in the trade market. From the blockbuster haul of the Jamal Adams trade to flipping veteran placeholders for late-round picks, Douglas equipped himself with double-digit draft picks entering both of his first two drafts and has nine going into 2022.
It is rare to see a team take a player with every one of its initial picks. By allocating these large collections of picks, Douglas allows himself the opportunity to go and get whoever he thinks will improve his roster. Douglas clearly values flexibility so that when it comes to draft day, he can always be ready to make moves depending on how the board breaks.
This methodology came to fruition in a big way when Vera-Tucker slid outside of the top-10 in the 2021 NFL draft.
Later revealed in the team-released docuseries “Flight 2021,” Douglas explained how Vera-Tucker was ranked as a top-10 player on the Jets’ board, giving them every reason to be aggressive and go get him when he trickled to the Vikings – who were also in the market for offensive line help – at the 14th pick.
Ultimately, Douglas and the staff were justifiably thrilled with the outcome and Vera-Tucker has paid dividends in return with his stellar play that continues week after week.
The process of maintaining a plethora of draft picks is exactly what a team like the Jets has needed. This allows the Jets to attack many different positions of need as well as be aggressive when necessary to secure future cornerstones like Vera-Tucker.
When the 2022 NFL draft rolls around, look for Douglas to continue being active in trading his picks and moving around the board as he aims to find the great football players and great people who can pull the Jets back into playoff contention.