The labrum in his hip was torn for more than a year when Lucas Niang finally decided he could no longer take it.
The Texas Christian tackle had known since the previous offseason he’d need surgery. His movement was limited. He couldn’t lift his leg completely. Still, he chose to fight through it.
For a while, he seemed to be justified in his decision. Niang didn’t miss a game as a junior, excelling in pass protection on his way to an All-Big 12 season. Playing through searing pain, he didn’t give up a sack. After his first full campaign, he was on course to be a first-round pick.
But as a senior, the pain in his hip lingered. Eventually, it could not be ignored.
“It just progressively kept getting worse and worse,” Niang said at the NFL scouting combine in February. “I couldn’t really do my technique. I couldn’t play my game.”
He tried to adjust, changing to a backpedal on pass sets in hopes of managing the force on his hip. But after vertical pass plays, the pain was so great he often took the next play off.
His performance was suffering, his NFL tape wavering. So after six games, Niang finally shut it down. He still hadn’t allowed a sack since the start of his junior season, but he had surgery in early November with an eye on TCU’s pro day in March to prove what he could do with two healthy hips.
Niang never got the chance, with the COVID-19 pandemic shutting down the remainder of the pre-draft process. Now, in a deep class of offensive tackles, the lack of medical certainty with his hip might mean a substantial drop on the draft board for a road-grading right tackle who, in any other year, might’ve been a first-round pick.
Niang assured in February that he was “damn near fully healthy.” Asked if it might be best for him to sit out his first NFL season, Niang refused to consider the possibility.
“I don’t like to hear that,” he said. “I’m not trying to redshirt.”
He’d be fully recovered by March, he promised. Whether his word will be enough remains to be seen.
If healthy, Niang profiles as a prototype NFL right tackle. At 6-foot-7, 328 pounds, he is one of the draft’s largest prospects yet moves better than most offensive tackles his size. His ceiling is arguably higher than any tackle in this class.
But fair or not, several other options at the position are perceived to be safer picks. Niang finds himself in a battle of perception ahead of the draft, with little options other than to hope his game tape speaks for itself.
Two seasons without a single sack allowed should say plenty. But the more telling measure of Niang might be his mental toughness. After two years of playing through pain, no one can question that.
“I played as long as I could play,” Niang said. “I finished every play. I wasn’t just trying to survive.”