Rich Cimini, ESPN Staff Writer 60d

A 671-pound version of Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen? New York Jets bullish on OL tandem

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- From the moment he arrived last year at One Jets Drive, strapped a set of shoulder pads on his 6-foot-7, 363-pound frame and proclaimed himself ready to dominate the NFL, left tackle Mekhi Becton hasn't been afraid to play the hype game. Big man, big expectations.

He did it again Monday after the New York Jets' first organized team activities session. The Jets tweeted a photo from the practice, a shot of Becton and his new right-hand man, rookie guard Alijah Vera-Tucker.

"LEFT SIDE," the Jets' tweet said.

Later on, Becton retweeted it, adding his own, not-so-subtle commentary.

"JORDAN AND PIPPEN!!! Mark my words!!!" Becton wrote.

Making a comparison to one of the greatest tandems in the history of team sports is pretty heavy stuff, but what the heck? This is the time of year when unbridled optimism is acceptable. It is kind of funny because Becton, 22, wasn't even born when Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen last played together with the Chicago Bulls (1998), but he grew up a basketball fan with an appreciation for greatness.

(Now what we need to know is, who is the Dennis Rodman of the Jets' offensive line?)

Jets general manager Joe Douglas probably wasn't thinking Jordan-Pippen when he traded up in last month's draft and selected Vera-Tucker with the No. 14 overall pick (Art Shell-Gene Upshaw, perhaps?), but the move was definitely part of a calculated plan to improve the line.

In his first draft, Douglas used the No. 11 pick on Becton, who delivered a promising rookie season. When he doubled down with Vera-Tucker, it became the first time since 1977-78 (Marvin Powell-Chris Ward) that the Jets picked offensive linemen in back-to-back first rounds. That doesn't count 2006, when they had two first-round picks and used them on tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson and center Nick Mangold.

Ferguson and Mangold became foundational players for the Jets' playoff teams in 2006, 2009 and 2010, and the hope is Becton and Vera-Tucker can have the same impact on the current team, which is rebuilding under coach Robert Saleh.

Douglas thought so highly of Vera-Tucker, a natural guard who played left tackle for USC in 2020, the GM paid a premium (two third-round picks) to move up nine spots. Some observers felt they gave up too much for a guard, but the Jets graded him as one of the top prospects in the draft -- a top-10 prospect on their board.

"The thing I love about the Vera-Tucker kid is, he's a nasty SOB," said longtime NFL offensive line coach Bob Wylie, who studied the 2021 draft prospects in his role as an instructor for "He's got a nasty attitude about him. He kind of reminds me of [Indianapolis Colts guard] Quenton Nelson. He plays with a nasty disposition. That's what you want out of a guy."

Wylie said Vera-Tucker possesses the three most important traits for an offensive lineman -- exceptional balance, lower-body strength and foot quickness. Vera-Tucker has "some of the best balance I've seen," according to Wylie, whose NFL coaching career started in 1990.

Vera-Tucker moves well for a 6-foot-5, 308-pound man, which should make him a good fit in the Jets' new outside zone run scheme -- a system that emphasizes lateral movement for the linemen.

"The many reason why it's a big strength is I've had a lot of practice with it," Vera-Tucker said. "Back at SC, in Graham Harrell's offense, we ran a lot of outside zone. On top of that, for how big I am, I'm just an athletic guy who can get to a specific angle point with a defensive lineman and cut him off. I can do what I need to do and get my block and just create holes for the running backs."

The Jets didn't have much of a running game last season; they tied the Jacksonville Jaguars for the fewest rushing touchdowns (nine). Oh, and the pass protection wasn't much better, as they allowed pressure on 37% of their dropbacks. Only the Philadelphia Eagles (38%) allowed a higher pressure rate, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Even though Becton was a bright spot, despite missing the equivalent of nearly five games because of injuries, the line was in need of a major boost. Guard/center Dan Feeney, a likely backup, was added in free agency for a modest price. Douglas saved his big play for the draft, making the bold move for Vera-Tucker, who was described by many talent evaluators as one of the safest prospects.

If Becton and Vera-Tucker reach their potential, the Jets could have a potentially dominant left side for many years, which should help the development of rookie quarterback Zach Wilson.

"That's good; you've got two No. 1s playing next to each other," Wylie said. "They're going to be young. They're going to make their mistakes, just because they're young, not because they can't play. They haven't seen enough yet, but they'll get better and be real good."

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