Vikings

Alijah Vera-Tucker is Purple Rain for Minnesota’s Guard Drought

Photo Credit: Kirby Lee (USA TODAY Sports)

In last week’s Minnesota Vikings draft adventure, Rashawn Slater fell into Minnesota’s lap, and Rick Spielman used the 14th overall pick to add him to the mix.

Following Slater’s Pro Day performance, that’s a less likely scenario.

To the surprise of virtually no one, Slater showed strong and fast, making it easier to overlook his 33-inch reach on his path to a gig as an NFL tackle. Slater added that he considers himself a tackle — the best tackle in the draft, in fact.

None of the above disqualifies the Vikings or any other team from drafting him as a guard, and self-respecting draft boards shouldn’t be swayed by one workout in shorts. But his availability at 14 was a best-case scenario anyway, and draft preparation is all about contingencies.

With the release of Riley Reiff there are now two gaping holes in the Vikings’ offensive line, but there’s still plenty of ambiguity surrounding the team’s specific needs. Is Ezra Cleveland a tackle going forward? Do the Vikings value protection for Kirk Cousins more than defensive help or another pass-catcher? Can Spielman say no to a trade that nets him more picks later in the draft?

As with last week’s fake draft that netted Slater, we’ll have to make some assumptions. For this week’s pick, we’ll assume the Vikings keep the 14th selection, can’t massage the salary cap enough to afford top-end guard help, and want to invest in protecting Cousins. Let’s also assume Slater is gone and the Vikings have a plan — likely Cleveland — to replace Reiff, and thus are leaning towards a guard with this pick.

Allow me to introduce you to the player who is fast becoming my biggest crush of this draft class.

Draft Alijah Vera-Tucker, USC

Vera-Tucker lands between 15 and 30 on most big boards and shows up on both the interior offensive line and offensive tackle rankings. The Mock Draft Database has him 19th and the consensus 16th overall pick to Arizona, so Minnesota moving to take him at 14 isn’t as big a reach as you might think. In fact, a recent draft simulated by The Athletic’s lead college football writer mocked Vera-Tucker to the Chargers, which is a bit disconcerting given that they pick 13th — one spot ahead of Minnesota.

Uff da.

Vera-Tucker began his career at USC at right guard, was a standout left guard for the Trojans in 2019, then kicked outside to left tackle in 2020 where he was also very good. However, his struggles against Oregon’s Kayvon Thibodeaux in the Pac-12 championship game reinforced the belief that his best NFL success would come at guard.

At 6’4″, 315 pounds, Vera-Tucker has prototypical size for either guard or tackle. He checks all the boxes for a Vikings run-blocker: experience with zone-blocking concepts, the athleticism to get downfield, and the intelligence to take smart angles to cut off linebackers at the second level.

Draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah also notes he has a great feel for combo blocks, something the Vikings employ regularly. Myriad scouting reports laud him for consistency and awareness, highlighting his ability to react and adjust to stunts, blitzes, and other defensive-line games.

But here’s the beauty of the pick: You don’t have to give up pass protection to get the quality run-blocking. Pro Football Focus grades Vera-Tucker as the top interior lineman in this class, based in no small part on a career 91.9 pass-blocking grade — second among all linemen in the 2021 class.

Any dings in Vera-Tucker’s scouting reports center on tackle things like:

  • Is his frame maxed out?
  • Does he have enough length to hold up outside?
  • Will long edge rushers give him trouble?

He’s not a pile-mover in the ground game, but that’s not what the Vikings’ attack calls for anyway. And buried deep among his many plusses are critical nuggets like “can anchor against bull rushes” and “stops onrushing linemen in their tracks.”

Amen. You had me at anchor.

The most telling comment in multiple scouting reports is that not only would Vera-Tucker be a good guard, he’d also be a great guard. Among many others, Brandon Thorn calls him an “instant-impact starter at guard,” Jeremiah says he’s “ideally suited to play guard” and “ready to start on Day 1,” and Charlie Campbell cites Vera-Tucker’s “Pro Bowl potential” at guard.

If you don’t recall the note from last week’s review of a possible Slater draft, the last guard to represent the Vikings in the Pro Bowl was Steve Hutchinson in 2009. It’s a drought whose time has come, and Vera-Slater in a Vikings uniform is the purple rain to end that dry spell.

The NFL comps for Vera-Tucker include T.J. Lang, Kelechi Osemele, and Terron Armstead. Maybe it’s not quite Slater’s Marshal Yanda comparison, but that trio does have seven Pro Bowls and six seasons named to various All-Pro teams to their credit. And there is no instrument on the planet capable of measuring the upgrade the Vikings would make at left guard replacing Dakota Dozier with Alijah Vera-Tucker. It simply doesn’t exist.

Or put another way: If the Vikings are on the clock and Vera-Tucker is on the board, and that isn’t the card Minnesota turns in, the anguished scream in unison of Kirk Cousins and myself will shatter glass from Mankato to St. Cloud to Duluth to the cheesehead border.

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