Defensive stars Niko Lalos ’20 and Isiah Swann ’20 sign NFL contracts
Defensive end Niko Lalos '20 (90) signed an NFL contract with the New York Giants, and cornerback Isiah Swann '20 (25) signed with the Cincinnati Bengals.
Typically, April is an exciting month for sports fans. There’s the beginning of baseball, March Madness and the NBA and NHL playoffs, just to name a few main events. This April, there was none of that.
Despite the near-total shutdown of live sporting events, football fans were greeted with some degree of normalcy at the end of the month. Even with the pandemic, the annual NFL draft went on, albeit virtually. Although Dartmouth did not see any selections in the seven-round event, two Big Green players, defensive end Niko Lalos ’20 and cornerback Isiah Swann ’20 signed undrafted free agent deals within hours of the draft’s conclusion on April 25. Lalos agreed to terms with the New York Giants, while Swann joined the Cincinnati Bengals.
“I was telling my family, like, ‘I can’t believe I’m really on an NFL team right now,’” Swann said. “It’s so surreal, always, to talk about it, but then to finally be in the position is crazy. I still can’t believe it.”
According to Lalos, the Giants had been in contact with him throughout the entire draft process and considered taking him during the draft. As the draft neared its conclusion, the team told him that they planned on offering him a free agent contract. Without hesitation, he agreed to the deal.
Swann, meanwhile, said that he had not been in contact with the Bengals during the pre-draft process. After what he referred to as the “longest 45 minutes of his life,” however, Swann got a call from Steve Jackson, the new cornerbacks coach in Cincinnati. He had one question for Swann: “Do you want to be a Bengal?”
In the immediate aftermath, Lalos described the reaction from family, friends and teammates as overwhelming.
“My phone just turned into a brick,” Lalos said. “[It] just shut off and wouldn’t turn back on just because it was getting so many notifications at one point.”
It took a bit longer for Swann to reach his agreement. As soon as the draft ended, Swann started scouring the internet, “looking at all the guys getting signed.” But then he got his call, and a similar response ensued.
“They were just happy,” Swann said. “My mom was happy. She was relieved. She was waiting there along with me for a call, and then I finally got one. And all my friends — I got a flood of DMs, text messages, just congratulating me. People that I barely remember from third grade Pop Warner days were congratulating me, so that was really cool.”
Among those with congratulations were Lalos’ and Swann’s Dartmouth football teammates.
“We saw the kind of players they were, the kind of athletes they were, so [we were] not surprised, but [instead] very excited for them,” quarterback Derek Kyler ’21 said. “Everyone will congratulate them, but we’ll joke around with them, try and make fun of them. You know, [Lalos] — we’ll give him a hard time about something and then just be like, ‘But congrats on the NFL,’ and add that in there.”
Next on the docket for both Lalos and Swann is rookie minicamp. Usually, this is where teams begin to evaluate their incoming draft class through workouts and practices. But as both players described, everything is now being conducted online.
“They send us workout plans and videos and instructional stuff,” Lalos said. “They’re on call for us 24/7. I have everything I need at my fingertips, and I’ve been lucky enough to have a weight room. A neighbor has a basement gym with a lot of stuff in it, so I’m able to go there and work out, and then I run outside at abandoned fields, soccer fields. I’ve been able to stay in shape and keep up to date on all my stuff, but it’s just kind of weird because you have to kind of fill it in virtually and do it on your own.”
Depending on the progression of the COVID-19 pandemic, teams may not be able to meet in-person for months. The NFL has announced that all off-season programs up to training camp will be online. If things do reopen by July, Lalos and Swann will begin their next pursuit: a chance to make the 53-man roster by season kickoff on Sept. 10.
“I’m trying to be as unbiased as I can, but I think they both do have a legitimate shot of making their teams,” Kyler said. “If they can make their team, I think they’re going to raise even more eyebrows as time goes on.”
Kyler noted that “it’s a really good sign” that both Lalos and Swann were such highly coveted undrafted free agents, especially since the demand for FCS players reached an all-time low this year. He attributed the low numbers to the reduced opportunities for players to showcase skills as a result of the pandemic. For many draft prospects, private workouts in front of scouts were canceled. Since both Lalos and Swann stood out even in the extenuating circumstances, Kyler believes that the two Big Green signees will “have legitimate chances.”
Both the Giants, who finished 4-12 last season, and the Bengals, who finished 2-14, are in the rebuilding phase, meaning that they could give longer looks to younger, potentially impactful talent.
Cincinnati, for one, had the first overall pick in the draft and selected Louisiana State University quarterback Joe Burrow. According to The Athletic, one offensive coordinator called Burrow a “once-in-a-decade prospect.”
Swann can’t wait.
“The opportunity to pick off Joe Burrow, that would be super fun,” he said. “They got a bunch of guys in the draft. They got [Clemson University’s] Tee Higgins, [University of Wyoming’s] Logan Wilson, just a bunch of studs in the draft. I’m excited to be a part of this rookie class particularly.”
The Giants, meanwhile, thought Lalos fit well in their defensive system.
“There were a lot of similarities between their coaching styles and their scheme and what I did in college,” Lalos said. “I was like, ‘Oh this is a pretty easy transition for me,’ and I feel like that’s a defense I can easily pick up and fall into.”
Lalos is particularly excited about focusing on football full time.
“I just get to do, talk, live, play football,” Lalos said. “I remember, at one point, doing various job interviews, and they ask you the technicalities and you have to make sure you’re reading the Wall Street Journal or something. But here, they ask you a technical question, and it’s all about football. It’s just cool to be able to do it and get paid for it and not really have to worry about having to do anything else on the side, like schoolwork or having a 9-to-5 job. This is my 9-to-5.”