The sad coincidence of being injured roughly a year apart on the same field was not lost on Jets offensive lineman Alijah Vera-Tucker.
"Two years in Denver," said AVT, referring to the torn triceps in Week 7 in 2002 and the Achilles tendon tear in Week 5 this past season. "I think we're playing Denver again -- but not in Denver! I would have had to tell [GM] Joe D [Douglas] I'm not playing! I'm glad they're coming here this year."
The Broncos' visit to MetLife Stadium in 2024 will mark the fifth-straight year (and sixth time in seven years) the two teams have played in a matchup that dates to the dawn of the AFL in 1960.
The consecutive injuries during consecutive victories at Empower Field at Mile High left the Jets' OL without perhaps it's best -- certainly its most versatile player. The Jets started 13 players on the O-line in 13 different combinations and AVT, before his injury, was part of that shuffle. After Week 2, he moved from right guard to right tackle, a position that was occupied by seven different starting players and eight players overall in an ever-changing lineup..
For all of AVT's versatility and dedication to the team, head coach Robert Saleh said on Monday that one of his goals in shoring up the offensive line is finding a spot to anchor AVT for the season -- or as long as possible.
"We want to get him at one spot," Saleh said. "There's a lot of reasons to believe some injuries are because of his curse, which is his ability to move from one spot to another, his versatility. I'm not sure if it's contributing to why he got hurt the last two years. The first year he played one position [left guard] and he stayed healthy the whole year. Whatever we decide -- whether it's left guard, right guard, right tackle or left tackle -- we want him to stay in that spot and never move through hell or high water, regardless of injury [at other O-line positions] to give him a chance to play and stay healthy through 2024."
Vera-Tucker, who is out of a walking boot and working toward returning at the start of the 2024 season in September, said he has no preference about where he plays.
"I can't really answer right now, I have to look at tape from leg guard, right guard, tackle and really study myself and see what I'm more comfortable with," he said. "I really mean this -- I really have no preference where I play. It's something I'll look at, go upstairs and talk to Saleh and Joe D."
Responding to Saleh's comment on his injuries and his versatility, Vera-Tucker said: "Truth be told I'm not really sure, it's something I'd have to look into, speak to the doctors and training staff to see if it had an effect. I was doing what I thought was best for me and the team. I was able to show my versatility playing guard and tackle. I'm happy I did. If I could go back, I wouldn't change a thing. Going into next year all I want is to stay healthy, that's all I really want. My playing style is my playing style, I have a lot of confidence in myself and the team."
Selected by the Jets with the No. 14 overall selection in the 2021 NFL Draft out of Southern California, AVT gave hints of being a building block on the O-line -- especially with the prospect of forming a blockbuster tandem with Mekhi Becton on the left side. As a rookie, he played in 16 of 17 games, logging 100% of the snaps on offense in all but one game (in which he had 96%). The last two seasons started the same way -- 100% through 6 games in '22 and 4 most recently. On the 26th play of the Jets' 31-21 win over the Broncos on Oct. 8, he said he felt like someone kicked him "in the calf."
"I thought I kicked Zach [Wilson] or Zach kicked me," Vera-Tucker said of the most-recent injury. "I didn't know what it was. We were in two minutes and I'm trying not to go down with an injury. I wasn't expecting it to be the Achilles. I tried to do my best on that play, my mindset right there was to keep on going."
He took one more snap before heading to the sideline.
"I tried to take my normal kick set, I was looking to keep them off Zach," he said. "After I was yelling to the sideline because I knew something wasn't right. I was able to walk back to the sideline and locker room. My hopes were high but also facing reality, too.
"Wild, right? Definitely emotional right then and there, my family was able to come into the locker room and I had a feeling what it was but didn't want to think that way. I couldn't really go to sleep all night, I stayed up waiting for the MRI, then got the news. It's something I had been through before last year, so I know how to handle it mentally, physically it's a little different. My mind is in a good place right, I'm just locked in and ready to keep on grinding."
Douglas and Saleh both spoke this week about the importance of improving and stabilizing the O-line. Rookie Joe Tippmann slotted in as a starter after Connor McGovern was injured and another rookie, Carter Warren, saw significant playing time. Veteran Laken Tomlinson at LG again played 100% of the snaps on offense and Becton (soon to be a free agent) was strong at times returning from injuries that kept him sideline most of the 2021 and '22 seasons. The NFL Draft in April (when the Jets have the No. 10 overall pick), trades and free agency will play outsized roles in the rebuild.
"It's definitely tough," AVT said. "You build relationships with guys and feel the beauty in this business. You meet a lot of people and you're able to keep a lot of those relationships going. You play another team and you've got a lot of homies on other teams so it's 'how you doing, how's the family.' It's real cool about this business, but it's a grimy business, too. Guys are going to do what's best for themselves, as they should.
"The O-line room may look a little different [next season] -- that's just how it is. It's a wild feeling, you feel bad for everybody on the team, especially the O-line because it couldn't stay healthy. It's hard to compete when you can't keep the same five out there. For me, it sucks I can't be out there to help the guys. It kind of hurts a little bit. Injuries happen, it's part of the game."
So for the second season in a row, AVT was relegated to rehabbing, watching and waiting as the Jets played on.
"It sucks man," he said. "The biggest thing I want to do is contribute to the team. When I can't be out there it's hard, either in the stands or my house on the TV. It's hard."