With the 17th overall pick in the annual SB Nation writers’ mock draft, Silver & Black Pride selected USC offensive lineman Alijah Vera-Tucker on behalf of the Las Vegas Raiders.
The Raiders significantly reshuffled the offensive line over the course of free agency, trading away center Rodney Hudson, guard Gabe Jackson, and offensive tackle Trent Brown. They did re-sign Richie Incognito and Denzelle Good, and signed former Texans center Nick Martin. But even so, there is obvious room for improvement along that offensive line.
It tracks, then, that offensive line is seen as an obvious choice for the Raiders in the draft. Enter Vera-Tucker, who is one of the most solid players in the draft, and who’s “bad” tape playing out of position is still pretty good.
From Silver & Black Pride’s Bill Williamson:
This mock fell pretty nicely for the Silver & Black. My choice came down to Vera-Tucker and Michigan pass rusher Kwity Paye. Both would help the Raiders and I think Las Vegas would be happy to land either Vera-Tucker or Paye. I went with Vera-Tucker because offensive line is a more pressing positional need and I feel OK about that, because they are close to being the same type of prospect as far as ceilings go. Vera-Tucker, an Oakland native, can immediately slide into the starting role at right tackle, replacing Trent Brown, who was traded to the New England Patriots. Vera-Tucker may project long-term as a guard. But that’s fine; the Raiders can always use him there down the road if that is his best spot. In short, this is a value pick for Las Vegas.
The strength of Vera-Tucker’s game is, aptly enough, his impressive play strength. Vera-Tucker is a smart and athletic interior lineman, but strength is at the core of everything he does along the offensive line. His play strength allows him to not only match up and win one-on-one situations as a pass protector and run blocker, but also not lose if things don’t go his way early in the rep.
Vera-Tucker is able to create movement along the line of scrimmage as a run blocker, digging defenders out of gaps, stressing the defensive front on zone blocking runs, or preventing penetration from explosive rushers. He is also able to absorb and neutralize powerful bull rushers, helping to keep a clean pocket into which his quarterback can step up. Vera-Tucker unlocks his play strength by combining it with solid lower body mechanics. He is a natural “knee bender” who easily sits into his stance, maintaining good hip and pad level, as well as a wide base. That not only allows him to keep good leverage while engaging with defenders, but also good balance to avoid lunging or to stay in front of pass rushers.
Vera-Tucker is a good athlete for an interior lineman, with enough agility and quickness to mirror interior rushers in pass protection or to stay in sync with his linemates on outside zone rushing plays. He is fast enough to stay ahead of the play as a pulling blocker, or when out in space after working to the second level or blocking for screen plays. Vera-Tucker has experience playing (or backing up) both guard positions and he is athletic enough that he could potentially transition to the center position — assuming he can get the hang of snapping the ball.
There wasn’t any evidence of him playing center in the tape viewed nor in my background work on him. That doesn’t mean that he can’t play the position, simply that it is an unknown. He has the requisite athleticism to be a starting center in the NFL; it is simply a matter of whether he can master the skill.
Finally, going hand-in-hand with Vera-Tucker’s play strength is his competitive toughness. He is a very physical blocker who doesn’t shy away from engaging with defenders. He is willing — even eager — to block through the echo of the whistle and consistently looks for work when he doesn’t initially have anyone to block. Vera-Tucker consistently hustles downfield to find defenders to block on screen plays or successful runs, and he often shows a nasty streak in space. He is athletic enough to be an accurate blocker at the second level and frequently looks to block linebackers or defensive backs out of the frame, or finish with the defender on the ground.
There are few real weaknesses in Vera-Tucker’s game, at least when he is playing along the interior. He backed up the offensive tackle position earlier in his college career and started at left tackle in his final season at USC. But while he is adequate for a backup or spot starter in case of emergency, he doesn’t have the length or range to be a safe option on the edges as a full-time starter.
While Vera-Tucker is able to handle himself at tackle when he is able to meet power with power, his technique begins to break down when he has to cover a wider range to deal with speed rushers. In those cases longer rushers can keep him from engaging by gaining his chest plate with a long-arm move or swatting his hands away with quick moves of their own. From there it’s usually a matter of slipping past him and into the backfield.
Vera-Tucker could stand to be more consistent in general with his hand usage as a blocker. He usually has heavy, active hands and fits them well to gain inside leverage (ie: on defenders’ chests and inside their shoulders); they can occasionally fall low and wide after the snap. That can make it difficult for him to get them up in time or when it comes to controlling defenders. The good news is that since his lower body is generally sound, this should be correctable at the next level.
Alijah Vera-Tucker might not be the most highly regarded player in the upcoming draft, but he might be one of the cleanest prospects in the draft. He has short arms and might not be quite athletic enough to be a five position player, and that could stop him from being considered highly and letting him slip to the Raiders.
One of the big questions when it comes to selecting an interior offensive lineman in the first round is whether or not the team could have gotten a player with similar upside at a later pick. And generally speaking, because guards just don’t have the athletic premium that an offensive tackle or EDGE player does, teams can find perfectly capable guards a bit later on. However, it is considerably less likely that a team would be able to find a player like Vera-Tucker, who should not only be a plug-and-play starter but also have his level of versatility, outside of the first or early second rounds.
That’s good news for a team that has questions at several spots along their offensive line. Vera-Tucker might not be a regular starter at offensive tackle, but he can play both guard positions and should be able to learn how to play the center position. This might not be an exciting pick, but it’s one that will help build long-term stability for the Raiders’ offense with a reliable starter for the next five years (at least).