Few prospects elicit as many questions about their draft status as TCU offensive tackle Lucas Niang. Despite appearing in 44 out of a possible 47 games during his career in Fort Worth, Niang’s senior season ended prematurely due to a hip injury. However, that hip injury has led his draft speculation going anywhere from the first round all the way down to the fifth. Come April, Niang will be a name draft pundits watch with anticipation to see which team takes a chance on him.
As mentioned above, Niang was durable during his collegiate career and did not appear to suffer any other injuries despite being listed at 6’7” and 328 lbs. He also did not allow a sack at all during his junior or senior seasons, a whopping 20 games. Niang also garnered second-team All Big-12 honors following his junior year. He proved to be a force at the position, leading to early-first-round grades prior to his senior season. Unfortunately, due to the injury, his stock has tanked in some people’s eyes, leading to a lot of uncertainty.
The hip injury that Niang suffered was a torn labrum. The labrum is a ring of fibrocartilage that helps deepen the socket for the femur to stay in place during movement. Much like the labrum in the shoulder, the labrum is required in order to maintain stability in a ball-and-socket joint. Taking a step back to look at the hip, the area is comprised of the head of the femur and parts of the pelvic bones of the pubis, ischium, and ilium. The three bones of the pelvis form the acetabulum, which is the socket that the head of the femur (ball) articulates with.
In order for the hip to function, numerous muscles attach to the surrounding areas that allow the hip to perform flexion, abduction, adduction, extension, internal rotation, and external rotation. These functions allow the human body to do nearly everything imaginable in our day-to-day lives.
There are a number of ways that a labral tear can occur. It can be torn via trauma, particularly when the leg is forced into a shearing motion, specifically hyperextension, hyperabduction, or external rotation. These types of motions would be seen with twisting, pivoting, falling, or motor vehicle accidents. This puts stress on the labrum and can tear with excessive force. Most tears occur in the anterior or front portion of the hip and can result in a radial flap tear, radial fibrillated, which is fraying, or instability which causes the labrum to become detached.
Sometimes, there is a singular event, such as trauma, that causes the labral tear. More often, there is microtrauma in the area that eventually leads to the worsening and breakdown of the labrum. This could be sustained through activities such as running, weightlifting, jumping, etc. It’s common to find that the injury is present and a clear mechanism of injury is not known. Degeneration of the area could also be a possibility, but it’s far from certain.
However, 90% of tears involve some bony pathology known as FAI or femoroacetabular impingement. This occurs when there is either a congenital defect or previous injury that could lead to a bone spur. Early exposure to repetitive activities involving the hip can also contribute to this condition by forcing the bony structures around the area to remodel and form the spurs. They can present as pincer lesions sitting on the acetabulum, or as a cam lesion sitting on the femoral head. Both can be present in the hip at the same time, as seen below. Up to 30% of the population is believed to have these variances, which indicates how prevalent it really is.
When these bone spurs occur, this leads to the hip joint wearing irregularly and eventually leads to a breakdown of the surrounding tissue, including the articular cartilage and labrum. Despite these irregularities naturally occurring, there isn’t much that can be done unless it causes a problem. Typically, an injury which weakens some of the surrounding muscle or overuse can allow the irregular wearing to begin and cause further problems.
When looking at Niang’s hip, there is some information that can be extracted from the little that is known. Reports have been rather forthcoming in stating that it was a hip, though none have identified which side. It’s known that he had been dealing with the injury since the offseason. Based on reported details, he should have a 3-4 month recovery timeline with arthroscopic repair further supporting the labral tear. A rehab protocol can be found here and here.
Niang’s major limitations would have been pain and possibly experiencing locking, popping, and clicking in the area during activities. He likely reported a dull ache in the groin region and may have possibly thought he injured his groin, similar to a core muscle injury. Further testing and imaging narrowed down the possible cause.
He would have experienced these issues getting in and out of his stance, along with engaging in his blocking duties. This would have forced his leg into external rotation and extension, further placing stress on the already-weakened structure, causing further discomfort.
I believe Niang ended his senior season early as TCU was out of contention. He was likely dealing with significant pain and realized his draft stock was in jeopardy had he played through. If TCU was in play for a championship, he would have possibly been able to play and get the surgery later.
NFL Return to Play Impact
Fortunately, Niang has a positive road back. Literature supports football players who have entered the NFL Combine with this exact injury had no differences in playing time or availability upon being drafted after their first year. However, reading the study shows that those that entered the league with these injuries were not drafted before the third round, but this may have been based more on talent than medical concerns.
Further research also indicates that 80% of the players who had this surgery were able to return to playing in the NFL. There was also no significant difference in career length, indicating that this injury is career-threatening. Other studies showed that 87% and 92.5%, respectively, were able to return to play following surgery, which did not affect their NFL careers in length or from a financial perspective.
This is an injury that occurs, it gets addressed, and the player moves on. Players such as tight endCameron Brate and safety Ed Reed suffered this injury throughout their careers and did not have any drop off in production. It’s also important to note that safety Malik Hooker had the same injury along with a core muscle injury and was still drafted 15th overall in 2017. There also is research indicating that once a player suffers this issue, the rate for recurrence is relatively low. The rates are even lower once the bones fully mature, which would be the case with most NFL draft prospects.
Despite all the excellent outcomes, there are still several concerns. It is not known which side he had the injury on. This could be a factor in decision-making when figuring out which side to line him up on. Knowing which way he will have to engage his blocks may maximize his body and limit the likelihood of issues to the other hip.
Information is not available regarding how his other hip looks, referencing the congenital possibilities. He may have just been built in a way such that the athletic demands made him more susceptible to these issues. Finally, considering he had the surgery in early November, his timeline to participate at the Combine was too tight.
Based on the timelines for a labral repair, he would have possibly been cleared by early February, giving him several weeks to get fully in shape for the Combine at the end of the month, which didn’t end up being enough. Instead, his focus was on the medicals and interviews. He could perform at his Pro Day, historically set for the end of March, giving him ample time to get strong numbers recorded.
NFL Draft Impact
Reiterating his uncertain draft status, there are some options for Niang. He could check out medically and be a team’s top offensive tackle left to pull the trigger in the first round. Knowing that he could drop, teams could pass on him to address another need earlier, letting him fall to Day 2, and grab him at a bargain value. Or he could fall due to other reasons into Day 3.
Speaking with Cover 1’s Christian Page, he believes that Niang is a top-75 pick, better suited for Day 2. I have similar views and believe he will slide there. His stats and measurables show first round, but he could be a value pick knowing that teams can be assured that he will still be there.
His hip injury is an issue that happens and shouldn’t really factor into his draft placement. I would consider the injury to be a yellow flag, something that is known but shouldn’t affect his play. Niang may become a starter on the right team, proving to be an effective player in the coming years. I like his chances to be a Day 2 pick and, wherever he ends up, that team can get him on the cheap. I believe the tweet below sums up who Niang is as a player and why he won’t drop as far as some experts fear.
Make sure y'all go back and watch Lucas Niang in 2018 against Chase Young and Nick Bosa. He's not perfect but he played those two very well. If he can get back to 2018 form, he can be a starter in the NFL.
— Jon Ledyard (@LedyardNFLDraft) February 21, 2020
As the draft day nears with medicals and testing completed, this should decrease the ambiguity of Niang’s draft status.