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How should the Jets optimize the offensive line with Alijah Vera-Tucker?
As the expression goes, “man plans, and god laughs.” To the point of that expression, Alijah Vera-Tucker’s NFL career can be summarized with a number of words, some of which are “not according to plan.”
Specifically, the Jets drafted Vera-Tucker to play left guard. They then used him there for the entirety of his first year.
However, he was quickly moved to right guard the following season to accommodate the offseason acquisition of left guard Laken Tomlinson. That was position move number one.
The plan further deviated after the Jets suffered injuries to offensive tackles Mekhi Becton, George Fant, and Duane Brown. This left the Jets without a left tackle for their Week 4 game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, and, thus, Vera-Tucker moved to left tackle. That was position move number two.
Then, left tackle Duane Brown was back for Week 5, which allowed Vera-Tucker to move off of the left tackle spot. However, now right tackle Max Mitchell was hurt, so Vera-Tucker was asked to play right tackle. That was move position number three.
For those counting at home, that means Vera-Tucker covered 4 of the 5 offensive line positions within his first 23 NFL games. Whether Vera-Tucker could have completed the full house by also covering center will always remain a question, as Vera-Tucker suffered a torn triceps that ended his season while playing right tackle against the Denver Broncos in Week 7 of the 2022 NFL season. (I kid, they were never going to play him at center…. right?… Yea, no way… I think.)
Heading into the 2023 NFL season, the Jets had made clear their plan to return Vera-Tucker to right guard. Head Coach Robert Saleh explained this rationale pretty succinctly just a few days ago saying, “We think he’s an All-Pro guard. He can still be an unbelievable tackle, probably a Pro Bowl tackle. But we know his best trait, he will be his absolute best on the inside.”
However, that preference to play Vera-Tucker on the inside may be waning in recent days. The Jets currently lack many options at tackle as both Mekhi Becton and Duane Brown work themselves back from injuries. Fans, the media, Robert Saleh, and even Vera-Tucker himself have considered that Vera-Tucker may have to shift back to the outside of the offensive line. In this article, I aim to analyze whether that makes sense based on Vera-Tucker’s past performance at each position.
Vera-Tucker at Guard
For the first 20 games of his career, Alijah Vera-Tucker played guard. In 2021, he played on the left side, earning solid PFF grades for a rookie (66.8 overall, 72.5 run blocking, 56.9 pass blocking). Notably, as reflected by his pass blocking grade, he did struggle in pass protection, allowing 42 pressures across his 17 games in addition to 34 hurries, 6 QB hits, and 2 sacks. In his first 3 games of 2022, Vera-Tucker played right guard, and much of the same was present (average overall grade of 72.4, average run blocking grade of 77.0, average pass blocking grade of 59.3).
Simply put, at guard, Vera-Tucker has been a strong run blocker and a so-so pass blocker, but his run blocking seems to more than make up for his pass blocking (at least according to PFF and my eye test).
Vera-Tucker at Left Tackle
Vera-Tucker played his one game at left tackle in Week 4 against the Pittsburgh Steelers. PFF did not view this one game favorably, scoring Vera-Tucker with an overall grade of 56.5, a pass blocking grade of 47.0, and a run blocking grade of 65.8. While this could be an issue of a small sample size, the early returns on Vera-Tucker playing left tackle were not good based on this one game.
Of note, in order to play left tackle, Vera-Tucker was switching both position (guard to tackle) as well as the side he was playing on. To say this was a large change is to put it lightly, so these struggles may be alleviated if Vera-Tucker is given adequate preparation before playing this position moving forward.
Vera-Tucker at Right Tackle
Now this is where things get a bit interesting.
Vera-Tucker played three games at right tackle. An optimist could point out that two of the best games of Vera-Tucker’s career came during this period. Against Miami, Vera Tucker was credited with a very high 79.2 overall grade by PFF with a 76.7 run block grade and 79.9 pass block grade. Similarly, in Vera-Tucker’s 16 snaps against Denver, he was credited with a 74.2 overall grade with a 71.2 run block grade and 79.2 pass block grade. If Vera-Tucker could sustain these grades then he would be among the best right tackles in the league, giving the Jets a cost controlled player at one of the game’s highest paid positions.
However, the pessimist could point to the other game that Vera-Tucker played at right tackle, which saw him struggle to the tune of an overall PFF grade of 47.7 with a run blocking grade of 59.7 and a pass blocking grade of 31.2 against the Green Bay Packers in Week 6. Obviously, those grades are unacceptable, so to say that Vera-Tucker was a big Jekyl-and-Hyde at right tackle is an adequate summary.
So now what?
I don’t know that there is an easy answer here.
On one hand, there is a reason the Jets prefer Vera-Tucker at guard and they see him in practice every day.
On the other, his performance at tackle could easily be described as showing “high potential.” To that point, Vera-Tucker was among the best pass blocking tackles in the league based on ESPN’s pass block win rate statistic.
Fairly small sample, but Vera-Tucker posted a pass block win rate of 93.5% while playing tackle last year.
That’s very strong: would have ranked 5th-best had he played there enough to qualify and maintained that pace.
(ESPN / NFL Next Gen Stats) https://t.co/oJnHHCnPX2
— Seth Walder (@SethWalder) August 10, 2023
Further, the value of a right tackle is considerably more than that of a right guard based on NFL salaries, and the Jets currently lack a healthy “plus” tackle, so perhaps seeing what he does with more reps makes sense.
Really, where the issue seems to land is what aspects of Vera-Tucker the Jets seek to highlight. At guard, he struggles a bit in pass blocking, but he is a fantastic run blocker. At tackle, he apparently may be a strong pass blocker, but his run blocking is seemingly of a lesser quality and his play may be more prone to greater week-to-week variance at tackle compared to guard.
For me, I value run blocking more than pass blocking from an offensive lineman. My logic being that quarterbacks and play calling have as much if not more to do with how we perceive pass blocking quality as the lineman themselves. More specifically, I would argue you can game plan around poor pass blocking via shorter time-to-throw times that prevent pass rushers from getting to the quarterback. By comparison, you can’t game plan around poor run blocking. Offensive lineman either win their reps and the running back succeeds or they don’t and the run game stalls.
Under that logic, I value run blocking more and, accordingly, I would like to see Vera-Tucker remain at guard where his run blocking can shine. However, I also would understand if the Jets wanted to give him a longer tryout at tackle to see if he’s an improvement over their current options, which leave much to be desired.
Originally posted on Gang Green Nation – All Posts