Alijah Vera-Tucker still has plenty of room to improve
Rookie left guard Alijah Vera-Tucker was a silver lining for the New York Jets throughout a dismal 2021 season. The Southern California product started 16 games and played a team-high 1,026 offensive snaps, consistently showing flashes of the elite talent that prompted New York to trade up and grab him with the 14th overall pick in the 2021 NFL draft.
Vera-Tucker was particularly impressive in the run game. When New York forged a successful run play, No. 75 could often be seen leading the way. The Jets amassed eight rushes for 10+ yards on carries that went through the left-side A-gap (the space between Vera-Tucker and the center), their best total into any particular gap.
On the year, Pro Football Focus scored Vera-Tucker with a run-blocking grade of 72.6, which ranked ninth-best among left guards.
It is clear that Vera-Tucker has a bright future in the run game. There is a high likelihood that he establishes himself as one of the league’s best interior run-blockers for a long time.
However, Vera-Tucker has a lot of work to do in pass protection.
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Vera-Tucker allowed 42 pressures, which ranked as the third-most among left guards and the sixth-most among all guards. He pass-blocked on 693 snaps, which means he allowed pressure on 6.1% of his snaps in pass protection. That rate placed 51st out of 65 qualified guards. For reference, the positional average in 2021 was 4.9%.
When digging deeper into Vera-Tucker’s pass-blocking production, it becomes clear that there is one particular aspect of pass protection where Vera-Tucker needs to be much better.
PFF tracks every offensive lineman’s performance on “true pass sets” (TPS), which are any long-lasting, one-on-one pass-blocking reps that do not include a quick pass, a screen, a rollout, or other external factors. Basically, it isolates snaps where the lineman has to engage in a real one-on-one battle.
In TPS situations, Vera-Tucker was actually quite respectable as a rookie. He allowed 26 pressures on 314 TPS snaps, a rate of 8.3% that was only a smidgen above the league average for guards in TPS situations, which was 8.2%.
So, essentially, Vera-Tucker was almost perfectly average when it came to preventing pressure in one-on-one situations. While he can still improve here, he was nowhere near terrible when he had to go one-on-one. For a 22-year-old rookie, that’s a nice springboard to build off of for the rest of his career.
Here’s where Vera-Tucker ran into trouble: any pass-blocking reps that were not true pass sets.
Vera-Tucker allowed 16 pressures on non-TPS snaps, tied for the most among guards. Those 16 pressures came over 379 non-TPS snaps, giving him a non-TPS pressure rate of 4.2% that ranked 62nd out of 65 qualified guards. The league average for guards in non-TPS situations was only 2.4%, so a 4.2% rate is very high.
Pressures allowed on non-TPS snaps are largely comprised of blown blitz pickups, blown stunt pickups, and other forms of botched assignments that are based primarily upon communication and recognition rather than raw blocking ability.
These are the areas where Vera-Tucker struggled.
Vera-Tucker’s pure talent was evident throughout his rookie season. It shined brightly in the run game and even allowed him to hold up at a decent level in one-on-one pass-blocking situations despite being a rookie.
However, Vera-Tucker was involved in too many blown protections that allowed defenders to invade the pocket unimpeded.
Here is a great example against the Denver Broncos in Week 3. While only those in the building know for sure who blew their assignment on plays like this one, it is highly likely that Vera-Tucker is the player at fault for allowing this nose tackle to be given a free lane to Zach Wilson.
Jets X-Factor’s Vitor Paiva wrote an excellent breakdown that explains why Vera-Tucker is probably the player at fault in the above play. Give it a read if you’re looking for a clear explanation as to what happened.
In addition to simple botches like that one, blitzes and stunts were also a problem for Vera-Tucker that contributed to his high number of allowed pressures in non-TPS situations.
This next play is an example of a true pass set, which is where Vera-Tucker held up decently in his rookie year. Vera-Tucker slides out with the three-technique, stays square, gets his hands inside, and easily wins the rep.
If Alijah Vera-Tucker is going to develop into a star lineman for the Jets, he’s got to be much better in pass protection going forward. Fully utilizing his physical tools to become a dominant one-on-one blocker will be a huge part of that progression, but the most important key of all has nothing to do with physicality; it’s the mental and fundamental aspects of pass protection.
Fortunately, Vera-Tucker’s greatest weakness is a fixable one that can be ironed out over time for a young player. It’s not uncommon for a young lineman to struggle with this problem – four of the top-five guards in non-TPS pressures allowed this past season were either rookies or second-year players.
Vera-Tucker’s got those unteachable athletic traits that teams covet, and he has already shown that he knows how to maximize them at the NFL level. Now, if he can just master the finer points of being an NFL offensive lineman, stardom will be in his future.
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