The New England Patriots’ offensive tackle position appears to be all set heading into the 2020 season, but the team still faces questions both in the short and the long term: starting left tackle Isaiah Wynn appeared in only nine of a possible 36 games over his first two seasons in the NFL; starting right tackle Marcus Cannon has a lengthy injury history himself and will turn 32 in May; projected third option Yodny Cajuste missed his entire 2019 rookie campaign after undergoing offseason surgery on his quad.
While there is a chance the team feels good about the state of the position both in 2020 and beyond, it would not be a surprise to see the Patriots invest in an offensive tackle in this year’s draft. If they choose to do so, TCU’s Lucas Niang might be an intriguing mid-round player to keep an eye on as a potential fourth option this year with considerable developmental upside further down the line. Let’s therefore take a closer look at him.
Name: Lucas Niang
Position: Offensive tackle
School: TCU (senior)
Opening day age: 22
2019 stats: 7 games; 378 snaps; 6 quarterback pressures surrendered (1 hit, 5 hurries)
Size: 6060, 315 lbs, 10.5 hand size, 34.25 arm length
Workout numbers: N/A
Expected round: 3rd
Patriots pre-draft meeting: Scouting combine
Strengths: Measured at 6-foot-6, 315 pounds at the scouting combine in February, Niang offers ideal size to successfully transition to playing the offensive tackle position at the next level. He has shown that he knows how to use his length to re-route pass rushers, and also has a wide base which in turn gives him a stout anchor: power-rushing against Niang is a futile endeavor considering that he absorbs impact well even when asked to block laterally or against pass rush from the edge. His high-motor competitiveness certainly helps in this regard.
Niang also moves extremely well for a player his size and is surprisingly nimble, which should allow him to become an impact player in zone schemes or as a lead blocker on screen pass attempts. He also has some good diagnosing skills and reads defensive movements well. Furthermore, he has shown that he can play with the necessary bend and is capable of lowering his body in order to successfully plow forward on rushing attempts — even though he needs to get more consistent. In general, Niang is a strong run blocker who has tremendous power both in his upper and lower body.
Weaknesses: Niang was forced to sit out the on-field portion at the combine after undergoing hip surgery last October. He suffered a torn labrum after suiting up for TCU’s first seven games of the season, but had been dealing with the issue all season long. As a result, he appeared to have adapted some funky-looking pass-blocking sets: the 21-year-old did not smoothly kick back in pass protection but rather side-hopped in order to get in position. His pass sets did look better in 2018, so teams will need to feel comfortable in his ability to return to his junior year form.
Niang’s footwork in general has been all over the place from time to time, and he needs to get a better feel for the depths of his drops. He also tends to over-invest in his outside shoulder from time to time, leaving him susceptible for inside spin-moves or other rushing counters to work through his inside. He also needs to learn to more consistently bend at the waist: he needs to get his shoulders down to successfully mirror pass rushers at the next level and keep a strong anchor. This has not hurt him that much in the Big 12, but it might become a problem against NFL-caliber athletes.
What would be his role? In the unlikely event that Niang’s recovery from hip surgery last October forces him to spend the 2020 season on the sidelines, he would serve as the Patriots’ fourth option at offensive tackle behind Wynn, Cannon and Cajuste. While this likely means that his playing time would be limited to mostly preseason, special teams or emergency work, starting his career as a depth option would actually be a good scenario for Niang: not only there not be a need for him to rush back after his hip injury, he also would be given time to clean up his pass protection technique.
How many downs can he play? Niang, who started 27 games at TCU, should be able to contribute on all four downs at the next level. As noted above, however, his career might start in reserve capacity which in turn would likely limit his actual impact during his rookie campaign: whenever he is on the game day roster in 2020, he would primarily be used in as a situation-specific third/fourth tackle and in the kicking game. That said, he does offer starter-upside and therefore potential to play more downs than just the occasional one.
What is his special teams value? New England likes to use its offensive tackles in the kicking game, with both Marcus Cannon and third option/Isaiah Wynn stand-in Marshall Newhouse seeing regular snaps on field goal and extra point protection units over the course of the 2019 season. A similar role appears to be realistic for Niang as well both during his rookie season and even if his role starts to expand.
Does he have positional versatility? Before his season-ending injury, Niang played exclusively at right tackle during the 2019 season, and he should not be expected to be used anywhere but the end of the line at the next level. He might be able to function on the left side in a backup/swing tackle role as well if given the proper time to develop, however, considering that he has not played there since his high school days. Furthermore, Niang might contribute as a tackle eligible and potential blocking tight end early on in his career.
Will his role change from Year One to Year Two? Two factors will determine whether or not his role changes between the 2020 and 2021 seasons: 1.) His overall development and technical growth; 2.) The other offensive tackles on the roster and how the team sees them. From a development perspective, Niang should be expected to become a much more complete player by Year Two and could therefore find himself in a competition for the starting role opposite Wynn.
Which current Patriots will he have to beat out? New England currently has four offensive tackles under contract: Isaiah Wynn and Marcus Cannon are the one-two at the position, with Yodny Cajuste expected to enter the season as the third option, and Korey Cunningham a depth option behind them. Niang would be guaranteed a roster spot as a possible third-round selection, with his playing time dependent on whether or not he can successfully challenge Cajuste’s standing on the depth chart. This seems unlikely given the developmental nature of his game in combination with his recovery, though, meaning that he would probably spend the 2020 season as the team’s fourth tackle.
Why the Patriots? New England appears to be well set at the offensive tackle position but the outlook remains a bit unclear due to the uncertainties surrounding the current top three options. Niang would likely not help address those when it comes to the 2020 season due to his recovery and developmental status, but he would give the team a developmental option with considerable upside and the potential to earn a starting role further down the line — something that could become important with Marcus Cannon turning 32 next month. Using a third-round selection on Niang might therefore be a sound investment from the Patriots’ perspective considering his football IQ and impressive moving skills.
Why not the Patriots? His health may not be the only factor working against Niang from a Patriots perspective. After all, the team already has a solid top-three under contract at offensive tackle in Wynn, Cannon and Cajuste: if all three are healthy — granted this is a big “if” when going off precedent — New England may not feel the need to invest in another offensive tackle on Day Two of this year’s draft. The team has bigger needs to fill at other positions and might therefore simply not be willing to invest in a developmental player like Niang.
Verdict: Lucas Niang has the potential to develop into a starter one day: his movement is impressive for a player his size, and he has performed well during his time at TCU. While his hip injury is a red flag, and he does need to drastically improve his pass sets, he offers NFL-caliber traits and could be groomed to one day take over Marcus Cannon’s current starting role at right tackle. This would not just be a neat story — Cannon started 36 games for the Horned Frogs himself between 2007 and 2010 — but give the Patriots some long-term security opposite Isaiah Wynn.