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2021 Patriots draft profile: Alijah Vera-Tucker could be New England’s solution at left tackle

Related: Patriots draft profile: Alim McNeill would add size, upside to New England’s defensive line

NCAA Football: Oregon at Southern California Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

One of the New England Patriots’ top needs in the draft is at offensive tackle. Despite being relatively set in 2021 with Isaiah Wynn and Trent Brown bookending the offensive line with a solid swing backup in Justin Herron, the-long term health of the position is not good. Wynn and Brown could both be free agents next year, which would mean the team would need to find someone to fill in at one of the two spots.

From the Patriots’ perspective, the draft has plenty of depth where they can pick from in the top two rounds. Penei Sewell and Christian Darrisaw will be long gone and the depth at the position will keep New England from trading up for either. Sitting at the 15th overall pick they have the option to consider Northwestern’s Rashawn Slater and USC’s Alijah Vera-Tucker.

Both players have a decorated history and are worthy of a first-round selection, but I like Vera-Tucker as a fit more than Slater.

Name: Alijah Vera-Tucker

Position: Left offensive tackle

School: USC

Size: 6’4” 300

Expected Draft Range: 1st/Top 15

Strengths: Vera-Tucker is clearly the third best offensive lineman in this year’s draft as a guy who could be a Pro Bowler at either left tackle or left guard. He checks off all the boxes: he has the size, length, and athletic requirements to be a starting tackle tackle at the next level. He has the feet to mirror pass rushers in his set and athletic enough to get out versus speed rushers without oversetting. He also is strong enough to handle a bull rush or speed-to-power moves.

Weaknesses: Vera-Tucker will be a good player in this league, but he comes with some guard risk. I like his chances of sticking at tackle, though, because of his mix of size, strength, and athleticism. There are times where his pad level can get away from him, which makes it tougher for him to sustain combo blocks on two-gapping defensive linemen before climbing to the second level. His issues can be easily fixed with a coaching staff that has an exceptional record at developing offensive linemen in the past 20 years.

Why the Patriots should draft him: There is a good chance the Patriots are sitting with the 15th overall pick and don’t have a trade-down option. In that case, it’s best to take a player at either a position of need that might not make it to your next pick or draft the best available player. Vera-Tucker checks both boxes. I’m not worried about his guard risk because he will get a chance to succeed at the left tackle position before they resort to guard. By then, New England may be moving on from Shaq Mason’s contract and he might be needed there. I’m not betting against him having to move to guard in New England’s system, but he does a lot of things that they ask their tackles to do at a solid level.

Why the Patriots should not draft him: If the team thinks he’s a guard, then pass on him. If you are drafting a guard in Round 1, he needs to be an All-Pro like Logan Mankins was. Another reason they may pass on him is simply that they like someone else better or a player drops out of the Top 10 and they go get that guy. Vera-Tucker is good value for the 15th overall pick if the team’s evaluations say “future starting tackle” and higher up players are gone. Vera-Tucker’s likely selection could very well be before the Patriots’ pick depending on how teams evaluate him and Christian Darrisaw. With the sheer depth at the position in the draft, there is no reason for the Patriots to reach here.

Who does he have to beat out: If the Patriots draft Vera-Tucker in the first round, I think it’s likely they carry four tackles especially since Herron can moonlight at guard a bit. Even though he played left tackle for USC in 2020, Vera-Tucker does have some guard experience from the year before if he had to play there in an emergency. However, his presence on the roster likely spells bad news for Korey Cunningham, who’s been the team’s emergency tackle for the past two seasons, and for former third-round selection Yodny Cajuste.

2021 Role: Vera-Tucker will be the third tackle on the depth chart as I think he should be the first up when the seemingly inevitable Isaiah Wynn injury happens. I like him as a potential extra blocker in short-yardage and goal-line situations where they can have him block alongside Wynn on the edge to open up a rushing lane for the backs to move the chains or score. He may see some special teams action on the field goal unit as a blocker.

2022 and beyond role: The intended role after his rookie season is to have him replace the oft-injured Isaiah Wynn at left tackle. I like the fit out there with him, and he will be playing alongside a solid veteran with two years of experience in Michael Onwenu. The hope is with Vera-Tucker securing the left tackle position, that this is something to help break in a new quarterback when Cam Newton’s time in Foxborough comes to its end.

Verdict: If the draft unfolds a certain way where the Patriots cannot land a quarterback or cornerbacks Patrick Surtain II or Jaycee Horn in the first round, Vera-Tucker is a solid consolation prize. Despite some guard risk, there is a good chance he’s able to stick at tackle since he doesn’t lack the size, strength, or athleticism out there. If he does end up having to move to guard, the team will be able to accommodate that in a couple years with Shaq Mason’s contract only running through 2023.