Football

Q&A: The Athletic’s Robert Mays breaks down Alijah Vera-Tucker’s draft stock

The NFL analyst and noted lover of offensive line play explains what he has seen in the departing Trojan’s game.

Robert Mays is an NFL writer for The Athletic and the host of The Athletic Football Show. Mays has a passion for analyzing offensive line play, an area of football that isn’t a major focus for many analysts, so I sat down with him to get his thoughts on USC offensive lineman Alijah Vera-Tucker’s draft stock and translation to the NFL. Click here to view his Twitter account.

Aidan Berg: You are one of the analysts who does something kind of rare, which is focusing and doing a lot of work on offensive lines when most coverage focuses more on skill players and speed players. How did you decide that was something you wanted to cover and key in on?

Robert Mays: I played offensive line in high school, so that’s probably the kernel of it. And after that, I just enjoy it. I just enjoy that side of it. I love pass rushers, too. I just feel like it’s such an important part of the game.

And as I’ve gotten older and as I’ve gone deeper in my reporting career, I’ve really enjoyed talking to offensive linemen. It’s a group that I was getting a lot out of conversations [with]. And some of the guys that I’ve developed relationships with in the league are offensive linemen, guys I feel comfortable talking with, I feel like they’re often insightful and the way they see the game is really interesting. So I think it comes from a couple different directions, I would say.

AB: Going back to your interest in offensive lineman, what are the main things that you look for when breaking down offensive line tape? How do you try to differentiate among players?

RM: I view it with a very novice eye; I like to be upfront about that. I’m watching the guys rather than studying them; I think that’s a good line to draw. It’s just everything: What are his feet like? What is his hand placement like? How does he deal with certain types of moves? How is his weight distributed?

Again, it’s all stuff that I don’t have nearly as good of a handle on as people who actually understand it. But I think that when you watch somebody from the end zone view and you start to watch two or three games, you just get a sense of them. You get a sense of what they do well, when they’re out of position, what they struggle with, all of that stuff.

AB: With your method established, what do you see from Alijah Vera-Tucker? Why is he considered a potential top 15 pick?

RM: I just think he’s incredibly steady. You watch him play guard in 2019 and he’s very rarely out of position, extremely sound. It’s almost boring to watch. And that’s one of those things with offensive linemen: For the really good ones, not much happens. And that’s the point. Some guys in college are really physically dominant, and that really jumps out. And with him, there is some of that; he’s incredibly strong, and his testing numbers were really good. But he doesn’t flash all the time.

It almost reminds me of watching [Tampa Bay Buccaneers tackle] Tristan Wirfs a little bit last year where we understand he’s this incredible athlete, but it doesn’t show up all the time on tape — and in a good way, because he’s never scattered, he’s never playing in a hurry. So I think he’s just one of the more rock solid players in the entire draft.

On our show I said something along the lines of “You pick him between picks 15 and 20, you start him for 10 years and you never think about it again.” That, to me, seems like the kind of guy that he is, and I just feel like those picks are always worth chasing in the first round.

The other guy that comes to mind — and this is the lofty comparison because he’s been the best offensive guard in the league since he came into the league — [Dallas Cowboys lineman] Zack Martin is just one of those names that you throw out. [Vera-Tucker’s] physical testing numbers are fairly similar to Martin, he played tackle in college like Zack Martin did, but both are physically better suited to play guard. So I think he’s one of those types of prospects, somebody that has an incredibly high floor. And it’s always nice when you can feel good about hitting on someone in the first round.

AB: Do you feel he has that versatility to play tackle in the NFL, or does he need to mostly be on the interior?

RM: I would mostly put him inside just because that’s where he can be the best. If you can play tackle in a pinch, that’s really nice. Again, we’ve seen Martin do that. Guys that can bump outside when you need them to, that has value. Along the offensive line, having positional versatility almost builds the depth in a way because you can slot a guy out, you don’t necessarily need to pay for a swing tackle, all that other stuff.

There are teams that I think have done a really good job of this. Buffalo I think is a really good example: When they look at free agent offensive lineman, if you can play [multiple] positions, that bumps you up in their minds because they know guys are gonna get hurt, they know pieces are going to shuffle around. So it’s just one more box to check.

But I think in an ideal world he would play guard just because that’s what he is. If you look at the size and you look how he’s built, I feel like he can be an elite, elite guard, rather than a tackle who can get by. In that case, I’d always want someone put in a position to thrive rather than just get by.

AB: What are the differences you see in his game between playing guard and playing tackle, and how do the potential weaknesses playing outside show up in the tape?

RM: This is just my amateur opinion of it, but when he’s playing from a two-point stance, and when he’s playing from that [tackle] position, I just don’t think he’s as powerful. I think he’s not as familiar, as comfortable in some of those situations as he is at guard, and I think you see that show up a little bit.

I also just think that we don’t really know a lot. When you watch him in pass protection, especially in 2020, he’s not playing as many nuanced, high-end edge rushers on that schedule in the Pac-12. When they played against Oregon and you watched him against [defensive end Kayvon] Thibodeaux, it shows up, you see some of the issues. I think in that game, you saw some of the cracks in the foundation and why teams might be hesitant about putting him out there.

I think when you put on the 2019 tape and he’s playing guard, there aren’t any of those. He looked like a really high-end prospect at that position compared to what he looks like at tackle.

AB: You mentioned the 15-to-25 range, is there a team in there or a couple of teams that you feel are good fits for him, both by need and by offensive approach?

RM: I think I just threw that number out because that’s where other guys at that position have gone. If the Giants were to pick him at 11, I would completely understand that. I think they have a need on the interior, they should be looking at a position like that. I think he fits perfectly there.

If the Vikings wanted to draft him [at 14], for example, I wouldn’t have any issue with that. I think there are a bunch of teams in that range that would be well-served by adding to their offensive line; I think Arizona would make a lot of sense. So even before 15, I think there are teams that if they were to draft him I think would be well-suited to do so.

AB: What have you heard from people around the league about Vera-Tucker? Have people said anything about him that has surprised you, or is it mostly backing up what you’ve seen on the tape?

RM: I think it’s mostly backed up what we’ve seen. People I’ve talked to have said “He’s a guard, he’s a guard” but also that he’s a really solid pick.

You never like to say the guy’s a safe pick. It’s never safe to do that. There are guys historically that have been “safe picks” that it’s been a disaster just because there’s no way to know with so many aspects of this and everything else. But if there is a safe sort of prospect, he seems like it.

I feel like him at guard is safer as a prospect, as an idea, than even like a [Oregon tackle] Penei Sewell would be at tackle or [LSU receiver] Ja’Marr Chase. Those guys have higher upside, certainly, but in terms of floor I really do feel like he has one of the higher floors of anybody in this entire draft.

AB: There seems to be a separation between Vera-Tucker and the other interior guys — he’s the only interior offensive lineman that will definitely go in the first round from what I’ve seen. You said it can be crazy and fluctuating, but what do you see as the difference between him and those other interior prospects?

RM: I think a lot of those other guys are probably better suited at center. [Oklahoma’s] Creed Humphrey is better suited at center, [Alabama’s] Landon Dickerson played center, [although] he probably could play some guard.

I think that’s probably it, just that he has some positional versatility, it’s a higher value position. There’s also less depth at guard than I think there would be among center products. There are a lot of centers even into the second and third round who, in the right system, you can talk yourself into them being a starting-caliber player. I don’t know if that’s necessarily true at guard.

So I really do feel like he’s just in a different class. And again, you’re just making bets. So even if you don’t feel like his ceiling is as high as some of the other people on here, I think there are fewer question marks. It’s just a safer bet. So that’s why, to me, there’s a line between him and some of those other guys.