The Case for Vladimir Ducasse

 

After going through the busy period of free agency and the draft without a serious attempt to acquire a starting right tackle, fears began to grow about the possibility of Wayne Hunter being the Jets’ starter again. Reports have suggested that the Jets are content to let Hunter and 2010 second round pick Vladimir Ducasse compete for the position, a thought much maligned by Jets fans due to Hunter’s 2011 performance and Ducasse being anonymous his first two seasons in the league. Unfortunately, we more or less know what the Jets are getting in Wayne Hunter. Vladimir Ducasse on the other hand remains one of the biggest unknowns on the Jets roster, and following the jump I’ll detail a few reasons why it’s not that outrageous to have some hope for some significant development. 

When the Jets drafted Vladimir Ducasse in the second round of the 2010 NFL draft, they knew they were getting a project. The 6-5 330 pound mammoth on tape looked a fantastic athlete but also a raw football player, and he was also performing against a lower level of competition than most top NFL prospects. Despite this, the Jets seemed more confident about his short term prospects than others, and his selection coincided with starting left guard Alan Faneca’s release from the team.

Ducasse was to compete with Matt Slauson for that position immediately and despite his rawness was expected to win that battle, perhaps unfairly, due to his draft status and the expectations that come with it. When training camp rolled around things played out a little differently – it was 2009 sixth round pick Matt Slauson that looked ready to follow in Faneca’s footsteps while Ducasse looked overwhelmed and clearly had much to learn. Since then, Ducasse has been at best a cameo in the Jets’ offense as a heavy tight end and at worst already the subject of many fan’s use of the dreaded b-word.

Fast forward to this upcoming season and Ducasse has been all but written off already as a candidate for a position the Jets drafted him to eventually fill in the first place. The Jets had drafted Ducasse as a competitor for left guard in the short term, but long term he was always thought of as a replacement for Damien Woody at right tackle. It’s true that Ducasse’s inability to make a serious push as a starter in his first two seasons isn’t exactly encouraging.

Given the circumstances he has played under since turning pro and the amount of polish he was always going to need to become a starting caliber player however it really isn’t that surprising either. It was naive of the Jets brass to consider him a potential immediate starter his rookie season, and the lockout in 2010 had a greater negative impact on Ducasse’s development than any other player on the Jets’ roster.

Because of his career path thus far Ducasse remains one of the biggest unknowns on the Jets’ roster. His potential is very high and to reach it he was always going to need time, but his clear role as nothing more than a backup two years into his career as a second round pick has obviously negatively affected his reputation.  With so much doom-and-gloom surrounding the idea that Wayne Hunter could actually be starting at right tackle again this upcoming season, here’s a few reasons why hoping for some progress from Ducasse is more than just blind faith:

Ducasse has immense potential and the right attitude to reach it. Teams graded Ducasse as a player worth drafting in the first two rounds for a reason. For one, Ducasse’s God-given traits are very impressive. At 6-5 and 330 pounds, Ducasse is a well-built giant and for a player of his size moves well with very nimble feet. One of the key natural traits scouts look for in tackle prospects is arm length, and Ducasse’s arm length of 34.75 inches is eye-catching.

For reference, the Jets’ own D’Brickashaw Ferguson’s arm length was measured at 35.5 inches and it was one of the things scouts salivated over in ranking Ferguson as a top five prospect. As the failed Vernon Gholston project attests to though, physical traits and athleticism are meaningless unless a player has a desire to get better and brings a certain nastiness to the game when it comes to getting physical and Ducasse has both of those traits.

Coming out of the draft Ducasse’s work ethic was viewed as top notch and scouts noted that he played with a mean streak. As a member of the Jets Ducasse may sometimes appear hesitant to hit somebody, but that hesitance is more a result of him being unsure of his assignment rather than lack of desire to be physical. Getting to the point where he can simply react rather than think about his assignment is one of the parts of developing that raw players go through. If nothing else, the fact that offensive line guru Bill Callahan identified Vladimir Ducasse as a player he would love to draft and mold says a lot about the natural qualities of an offensive lineman that Vladimir Ducasse exhibits.

In limited playing time, Ducasse is already showing signs of promise. Perhaps the most unfair of all assumptions regarding Vladimir Ducasse is that he’s been useless and a waste of a roster spot. Here’s what TJB’s own Bent wrote on Ducasse’s performance in

his only extensive action for the Jets at right guard in Week 17 of the 2010 season:

Ducasse was a revelation. On his very first play, he pancaked Akin Ayodele at the second level and he got a consistent surge in short yardage situations, did a good job of finding a guy in space and was much better in terms of sustaining blocks, particularly against Marcus Stroud, who couldn’t get off him on a number of occasions.

Ducasse is clearly a physical specimen and is starting to find ways to use that size and strength to drive people off their spot. He still shows plenty of signs of rawness, however. After an excitingly dominant first couple of series that had me all but ready to make some kind of declarative proclaimation about his future, he regressed in the second quarter.

On a couple of occasions, he blocked the wrong guy or nobody at all and Turner had to save him. On another, he let his guy get through him to blow up a play. He also couldn’t find a guy to block at the second level once or twice. Despite this rocky second quarter, he regrouped for a mostly mistake-free second half.

I’d caution that he was mostly given straightforward blocking assignments, including plenty of the one play he seemed to master in preseason, which involves him ignoring the defensive line and proceeding to the second level to try and make a block there. I’d also caution that the officiating crew seemed pretty reluctant to throw many flags and that there were at least a couple of instances where he might have been close to a hold. Positive signs though, especially the zero pressures.

Ducasse hasn’t started a game since, but this past season he began to be utilized as a sixth offensive lineman.  His most extensive playing time in this role came when Ducasse played a third of the snaps in Shonn Greene’s best game of the year versus Kansas City. The game featured the Jets’ longest rush of the season, a 31 yard Shonn Greene run on the opening play of the game on which Ducasse threw one of the key blocks.As Bent describes, Ducasse during his only significant playing time as a guard played pretty well. At times Ducasse showcased dominant run blocking ability and gave up no pressures in pass protection, albeit Brunell only dropped back 13 times.

 

Ducasse is already showing signs that he can be a quality player in the run game, and with the Jets under Sparano looking to reaffirm their commitment to running the football Ducasse getting better and playing a big factor in the Jets’ offense isn’t that farfetched. In fairness he hasn’t been tested much in pass protection and that’s where Wayne Hunter’s failures this past season were most noticeable, but he does possess the natural skills to grow in this area and Sparano’s offense won’t leave the right tackle(whoever it is) on an island as often as Brian Schottenheimer did.

Tony Sparano’s system keeps it simple and fits Ducasse well. There was a lot wrong with Brian Schottenheimer’s system and play calling. Plays were poorly designed or perhaps “over-designed”, talent wasn’t always maximized and weaknesses weren’t always masked well. Following his departure from the team most players and coaches were classy in not saying anything negative, but the one criticism they would admit about Brian Schottenheimer was that his system was too complex.  Even Rex Ryan, the mastermind behind one of the NFL’s most complex defenses, couldn’t always wrap his head around what Brian Schottenheimer was trying to teach.

What Sparano brings for one thing is an offense that’s streamlined. It’s less about the number of plays, but more about having a number of plays that fit a specific identity that players can master and do well. Players won’t have to think as much under Sparano and can just focus on their assignment.

This should help everyone on offense, particularly Mark Sanchez, and Ducasse is a large beneficiary as well. As a player still relatively new to the game, an expansive playbook with complicated schemes and blocking assignments is an especially hard thing to digest and as is the case in every sport a player can’t find success if he is thinking instead of reacting.

Most importantly, Sparano’s philosophy is right up Ducasse’s alley. The Jets are going to be a power running team under Sparano and Ducasse’s most immediate strengths are as a mauling run blocker. When it comes to passing the ball, Sparano has noted two things in particular he believes in: picking up a lot of yards on “chunk plays” and protecting the quarterback.

The latter was easily noticed in Miami’s offensive schemes throughout Sparano’s tenure as head coach. According to Football Outsiders, the Dolphins led the league for every year of Sparano’s coaching tenure in percentage of max protections called on offensive plays. If Ducasse continues to develop his game and shows legitimately strong ability as a run blocking right tackle, Sparano would look to minimize any deficiencies Ducasse has as a pass blocker by giving him extra help more often than Schottenheimer would have been inclined to.

Ducasse is still a very young player with a lot of room to grow. He’s got tremendous natural ability and he’s a perfect match for a Sparano-led offense. As is the risk with raw, high potential players, there’s always the chance that he doesn’t “get it” and levels off at an ability much less than hoped. At this point though, just two years into his career with still so much to learn and already showing more ability than a lot of people realize, it’s unfair to write him off just yet. Ducasse could one day slot in to the starting lineup and be there for a long time, and that moment could be as soon as this year.




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