When GM Joe Douglas made a deal to move up in the first round of the 2021 NFL draft, some opinionated observers were skeptical of the Jets' decision to swap No. 23 for No. 14 in the first round -- plus sending Nos. 66 and 86 to Minnesota.
That decision, which resulted in the drafting of a possible foundational offensive lineman in Alijah Vera-Tucker out of USC, now looks to be inspired and prescient.
AVT started in 16 games this season and his 1,026 snaps on offense (100% in all but one game) led the team. His 67.2 Pro Football Focus grade ranked second among rookie guards who took 80% of their team's snaps. His 2 sacks allowed ranked first and his 6 hits and 34 pressures ranked second. He also had a better grade in the run game than in pass protection. His 72.1 PFF run-blocking grade ranked 10th among 40 qualifying left guards.
"I think this rookie class has a great chance to be special," AVT told team reporter Eric Allen.
Six of the Jets' rookies -- on offense and defense -- played more than 400 snaps this season, and though AVT conceded that he's "not a stat guy," he did take note.
"I did see that stat," he said with a chuckle. "It's a crazy stat. It makes everyone excited for the future. It's good to get the young guys playing. Every single one of us learned a whole lot and we're all excited to build off what we learned."
He added: "It's a really exciting rookie class this year. Everyone was taking this year to grow and get used to playing in the NFL. I'm excited, and everyone else is also. We know what we did right and what we did wrong. Now going into OTAs and camp, we'll be working on the same offensive and defensive schemes and be able to get right back into it and go full speed."
After taking QB Zach Wilson with the No. 2 overall pick, the deal to move up to No. 14 yielded the two-time All-Pac-12 lineman (who probably would have been off the board at No. 23), with WR Elijah Moore and RB Michael Carter coming later in the draft to form a Core Four of rookies on offense.
"That would be cool, a nickname is never bad," AVT said. "If you all come up with one, we'll think about it and talk about it."
At the start of the season, talk centered on the young and powerful left side of the Jets' offensive line (Wilson's "blind" side), with AVT teamed with second-year tackle Mekhi Becton. But when Becton went down with a knee injury in the Week 1 game at Carolina (and subsequently missed the balance of the season), George Fant flipped from right to left and had a strong season.
"He's a veteran guy right there, and it was a good opportunity for me to play next to a guy who's been in the league a while," AVT said. "And he's a great left tackle, too. He had an outstanding season. Being next to him was great, he taught me details about the game. Little details that are important in this game.
"The vision is still there on the left side." He added, "No matter who's with me, it's going to be a lockdown left side."
At a spry 22 years old, the 6-5, 308-pound LG is nimble on his feet and quick to get to the second level.
Daniel Jeremiah, NFL Network's lead draft analyst, ranked AVT No. 22 on his list of the top 25 rookies (Carter was No. 23), the second-ranked guard.
"The Jets made a concerted effort to bolster their offensive line in the last two drafts, and Vera-Tucker looks like a fabulous building block," Jeremiah wrote. "He is outstanding working to the second level and can easily anchor in pass protection."
AVT conceded that he needs to work on improving his play in pass protection in an effort to give Wilson time to go through his progressions while also keeping the leader on offense vertical as much as possible.
"There's always room for improvement," he said. "From what I can say now, without looking at every game, I'd say the pass protection, I want to get better. There are strengths and weaknesses. In the run game, I'm always going to be violent, as I was able to show this season. Definitely pass protection and perfecting my craft as much as I can in this offseason."
Asked how he has adapted from college to the Jets' offensive scheme, Vera-Tucker said: "Personally, I like how fast you have to be. You can't be slow coming off the ball at the first or second level. The first step is everything. I like playing that way, so far I'm loving it and excited about it."
While Jets fans may dream of the OL tandem of AVT and Becton as a reboot from the days of the stalwarts Nick Mangold and D'Brickashaw Ferguson, Vera-Tucker says that he's more than fond of the supporters of the Green & White.
"We see how the fans support this team and it makes us feel better," he said. "I feel like Jets fans are the best in the nation. They see what we're trying to build, what Coach Saleh is trying to build with the culture. I'm excited about it to give the fans a good season next year. Shoutout to the best fans in the nation."
See All of the Top Images from the Green & White's 2021 Season