The offensive line transformation the Kansas City Chiefs went through this offseason has been highlighted by multiple talented rookies that have emerged. At first, center Creed Humphrey appeared to be the only rookie shoo-in, then right guard Trey Smith started training camp with the first team.
Now, right tackle Lucas Niang has earned his way into the top lineup. He originally got the shot because veteran right tackle Mike Remmers went down with injury — but even in Remmers’ return, Niang has had a stronghold on the starting snaps.
That means the line now consists of three starting rookies, and everything points to that being the case for the Week 1 opener against the Cleveland Browns. They may all be first-year players, but they don’t look at themselves that way.
“It doesn’t matter to us that we’re rookies,” Niang proclaimed to reporters after Wednesday’s practice. “It’s just football. We’re always together, learning together, working together, making sure we communicate.”
Communication is key for a five-man offensive line unit. The group has to verbally alert each other of their individual assignments to map out how to handle the defensive front on each play. The newest version of the starting line continues to get familiar with each other, and Niang feels good about the progress they’ve made.
“We’ve come together fast,” Niang reflected, “We got a ways to go — but we’re doing a good job. Everyone’s communicating, getting on the same page. We’re gelling as a group, so it’s something to be looking forward to.”
Specifically for the right tackle, he must always be on the same page with his right guard. While Niang and Smith work to improve their individual performances, they’re also steadily strengthening the important parts of their on-field relationship.
“It’s improved a lot,” Niang said of communication with Smith. “I’m starting to understand how he thinks, and vice versa. We don’t have to say as much — and if we do, we’re clear and precise about everything. It’s less conversations, more of I say something and he knows exactly what I’m talking about.”
Niang and Trey Smith working to stop a stunt— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) August 16, 2021
Good job by Smith to come off & quickly pick up stunting DE; Niang doesn't stay square, allowing DT to get him off-balance and win to his inside. You'd like to see Niang stay tight to Smith's hip seal off that lane for DT #Chiefs pic.twitter.com/LX5xjfVejC
Niang and Smith had an opportunity to test their communication skills in the preseason game. On the first third down of the game, the duo had to deal with a tackle-end stunt — meaning the defensive tackle shoots across the guard’s face to the offensive tackle, while the defensive end loops behind and tries to penetrate inside of the guard.
Smith picks up the defensive end quickly, while Niang allows the defensive tackle to win inside of him. I assume that once Smith recognized the defensive end’s stunt, he’d alert Niang that the tackle is coming at him — and vice versa. Without knowing whether that verbal cue happened or not, the two appeared to handle it well, considering it was their first live-game look at one.
Niang could have had better base footwork — which would have allowed him to close down the gap between him and Smith quicker. He admitted to improving in that aspect on Wednesday.
“I could always be more square, be more firm on pass-protection — and just being more of a mauler in run-blocking.”
One way Niang is improving in practice is by facing defensive end Chris Jones, who looks as disruptive and unblockable as he ever has. There are some great edge pass-rushers that Niang will face, but not many will be as much of a challenge as Jones — and the young right tackle knows it’s aiding his development.
“He’s helped me by just [making me] be on 10, I have to be ready,” Niang explained. “I have to know my assignment so I can just go out there and play; I can’t be thinking about or unsure about what I have to do if I have to go block him, so he’s just pushed me to know my assignments and get my technique down.”
Jones mirrors the respect that Niang gives to him, crediting the rookie on how seamless the lineup change has been.
“He’s handled it well,” Jones noted during his press conference on Wednesday. “[Mike] Remmers went down, and they brought him in, and he didn’t miss a beat. There’s a lot of new faces on the offensive line, and I think they’ve been meshing well so far at this camp... We’ve got a lot of competition amongst the O-line and D-line — competing every day and challenging each other, making us better as a team.”
Training camp is officially over, and Week 1 is closer than it feels. Before we know it, Niang will be attempting to keep Cleveland’s All-Pro defensive end Myles Garrett from wrecking the Chiefs’ passing game.
It’ll be as tough a challenge as he’ll face in any matchup. Fortunately, Niang feels good about the communication and performance of his fellow starters. Along with his practice battles with Jones, Niang has reason to feel good about how well-prepared he’ll be for his first professional season.