In general manager Joe Douglas’ blueprint for building the Jets offensive line through the draft, Mehki Becton (No. 11 overall in 2020) and Alijah Vera-Tucker (No. 14 overall in 2021) were projected to protect the left, blindside of the quarterback for years to come. But in the NFL, blueprints are often written in pencil.
Fast forward to the start of the 2023 season, and there are Vera-Tucker and Becton together again after they each have dealt with season-ending injuries. Suffice to say they know their left from their right, because that’s where the two young, hulking offensive linemen now find themselves — playing right guard and right tackle.
“It’s crazy how life works, we got drafted and were supposed to be on the left side together,” Vera-Tucker said. “Injuries, and two years later we’re both on the right, looking to make some great plays. We’ll see how it works. [Mekhi] was away from the game for two years, comes back in the offseason and gets in shape, doing all the right things. Each week we’re improving on the little things.”
Vera-Tucker wears the word “versatile” as a badge, and rightfully so.
“I’ll do whatever is asked, that’s just me having confidence in myself,” AVT told Eric Allen on a new edition of “The Official Jets Podcast.” “The confidence, saying I can play anywhere on the line. Another part is being a team guy and doing whatever’s best for the team.
“I like guard, but if they need me to play someplace else — I’ll do that because I have confidence. Last year was kind of crazy, left tackle, right tackle, guard. I had to adjust, but it was a cool experience that I’ll never forget. Hopefully it doesn’t happen again, but if it does — I’ll be ready.”
AVT moved from the left to the right side last offseason after the Jets signed the veteran left guard Laken Tomlinson.
“That was funny, too, they signed him and I saw a left guard from San Francisco, let’s see what happens,” he said. “Coach [head coach Robert Saleh] calls and asks me ‘what if he wants to play left guard?’ I have experience at right guard [from his days at USC]. Just tell me early was my only request.”
Last season was the first in AVT’s three-year professional career in which he didn’t play 100% of the snaps in a game on offense. During the Jets’ Week 7 game at Denver, Vera-Tucker was on his way to another maximum number of snaps before he felt a snap in his arm. The torn triceps put him out for the rest of the season. What began was a long, arduous rehabilitation process that kept AVT and his wife close to the Atlantic Health Jets Training Center for the bulk of the offseason.
“I had never had any upper-body issues, maybe a hamstring in college,” he said. “It was some weird, freak accident, it definitely hurt and I didn’t know what it was. I thought I would be out three, four weeks. It was tough news on the Monday after the game, an MRI, then telling me I’d be out for the season.
“I spent a lot of hours in the facility when no one else was here. My wife and I got a crib out here. A lot of hours, three, four a day. It was tough on me. I had to change my diet; I couldn’t eat like a normal offensive lineman. When you get injured like that, you have to prepare the whole offseason. It’s a lot.”
Back on the field for the season opener against Buffalo on Monday night, Sept. 11, AVT said he soaked up the excitement and anticipation at MetLife Stadium.
“Playing college ball at USC, I definitely experienced a lot of cool things,” he said. “But the Monday night pregame definitely was something I’ll never forget. Fans showing up early and being loud was cool, Aaron Rodgers running out with the [American] flag. MetLife was the loudest I’ve ever heard. The energy was high and I’ve got to give credit to the fans. They stuck with us.”
It would be fair to say that the air was sucked out of the building early, when Rodgers went to the turf and later received a diagnosis of a torn Achilles tendon, meaning he would miss the rest of the season.
“I would say, for me and speaking for the offensive line and the offense in general, when he went down, we have to move on to the next play,” AVT said. “Zach [Wilson] comes in with high energy and great poise and I felt like the offense knew what to expect. Things were not going our way. We picked up the energy and did whatever we needed to do to win this game.”
The Jets went to the locker room trailing at halftime. AVT said he could feel the determination and belief in the room.
“We came in knowing we could win that game,” he said. “There was high energy because we knew we could beat them. No rah-rah speech, we just knew we could do it.”
Then it was on to face the Cowboys and for the second straight game, the Jets’ reconstituted offensive line played every snap on offense for the second straight game, though the rushing numbers and the performance at Dallas did not live up to expectations. “There’s a lot to improve on, a lot to build on,” Vera-Tucker said.
“The offense just never got in a rhythm,” he said about the 30-10 loss. “We knew we had to run the ball and run it well. Unfortunately, we didn’t and couldn’t get into a rhythm. We were forced to throw almost the entire second half. This is a passing league, but you have to be able to run the ball. Their defense did a good job to shut it down early.” He added: “When you don’t come out fast, it’s hard to get that energy back.”
After rushing for 172 yards against the Bills in the opener, the Cowboys limited the Jets ground game to 64 yards, 36 of which were credited to QB Zach Wilson.
“Now we have to flip the page, we have the Patriots at home, and we all know what type of game it’s going to be,” AVT said. “We know it is going to be a dogfight. No one is happy about the Dallas game. We have to come in and fix it.”
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