Big Green alumni vie for NFL roster spots

by Devan Fink | 9/18/20 2:05am

Source: Courtesy of Isiah Swann

The NFL kicked off its 2020 season last weekend, and despite the fact that no Dartmouth football alumni suited up in Week 1, three players are still vying for roster spots going forward. 

Offensive tackle Matt Kaskey ’19 and defensive end Niko Lalos ’20 secured spots on the practice squads for the Carolina Panthers and New York Giants, respectively. Additionally, cornerback Isiah Swann ’20 signed an undrafted free agent deal with the Cincinnati Bengals but was waived as a result of a failed physical in late July. He remains a free agent. 

Of the three, Kaskey seems most likely to join an active roster this season. He is in his second season with the Panthers and was promoted to the active roster late last year, though he did not debut. Kaskey has received “protected status” — a new COVID-era rule allowing teams to protect up to four practice squad players from signing elsewhere until the team has played that week’s game — for both of the team’s games so far. 

While Kaskey did not want to speculate, the Panthers’ protection suggests that he may hover just outside the active roster and could be near the front of the line for promotion. 

“I’m just thankful they kept me around on the practice squad to give me some time to develop and become a better player,” Kaskey said. “I’m just focused on myself and getting better as opposed to where I stand on the 53-man roster.”

Kaskey said that in his second year with Carolina, he feels “way more at home.” He added that he has been learning from veterans on the Panthers’ offensive line, including Taylor Moton, Russell Okung and Matt Paradis. Kaskey said that he is currently using his time at practice to improve his hand usage while picking up defensive linemen, trying to throw off his defenders’ timing. 

“I just go out there and try to get better at one or two things that I’ve been lacking in,” he said. “That’s what the day-to-day looks like, and then you keep building those blocks over the course of the year. By the end, you’re a much better player.”

While at Dartmouth, Kaskey was twice named to the All-Ivy League First Team and was one of the team’s three captains during the 2018 season. He was part of an offensive line that excelled in both run blocking and pass protection: In 2018, the Big Green offense ranked 11th among FCS teams in rushing yards per game and sixth in sacks allowed. 

Lalos, unlike Kaskey, is still waiting for his first chance to make an active roster as a rookie this season. He said that he is “excited” about the prospect of playing for the Giants, noting that this year could create some additional opportunities given the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic.

“I’m just trying to work every day as if it could come at any moment,” Lalos said. “So just trying to do the best I can and be prepared when I’m called upon.”

Lalos signed with the Giants as an undrafted free agent, capping off a successful career with the Big Green. As a senior, Lalos was named to the All-Ivy League First Team after recording 35 total tackles and 5.5 sacks in ten games. His highlight of the year came at Yankee Stadium versus then-undefeated Princeton University, where he opened the scoring with a pick-six. He was also chosen as his team’s MVP at the 2020 Hula Bowl, a postseason college football All-Star game. 

Lalos said that the work ethic he developed at Dartmouth has contributed to his growth as a football player with the Giants. 

“Being a rookie, I think the transition has been a little bit easier for me workwise,” Lalos said. “I’m used to putting in long hours and trying to do extra whenever I can to make up for any lost ground. [I was] at a school where I was waking up early and going to bed super late every night trying to balance football and school, but now, instead of trying to balance school, it’s just football and football.”

Meanwhile, Swann remains in the hunt for an NFL roster spot following his failed physical for the Bengals. Swann only played in seven of the Big Green’s ten games last year due to a knee injury, though his performance rarely, if ever, seemed compromised

Last season, Swann recorded four interceptions, two of which he returned for touchdowns, as well as 31 tackles. He is the all-time Dartmouth leader in both interceptions, with 17, and in pick-sixes, with four. In recognition of his star performance, he was named to the All-Ivy League First Team in both his junior and senior seasons, winning the Bushnell Cup as the top defensive player in the league during his junior year. 

After undergoing surgery in the offseason, he felt “a lot better” and did not anticipate having any issues with the physical. 

“I was getting my knee strong, getting the muscles around it strong, and I thought I was ready to go, but they thought differently,” Swann said. 

Swann remains motivated to find another chance elsewhere. He said that he has been working out every day and remains in close contact with his agent as they gauge interest from the 32 teams. According to Swann, he is on a couple of teams’ lists for future workouts and hopes that he will have a chance to prove himself. 

For now, he is just trying to stay ready. 

“You can get a call at any point, and I don’t want to be unprepared if that call comes, whenever it does come,” he said. “‘Just one day at a time’ has really been my motto.”

Swann added that he misses Dartmouth and his teammates. 

“I do my best to push myself, but it doesn’t do the same as when I’ve got my guys around me, and we’re really all working towards the same goal,” Swann said. “I really just miss my guys, working out on and off the field.”

Kaskey shared similar sentiments. 

“I love the people at Dartmouth,” Kaskey said. “Lifelong friends from the team — that just made football a lot of fun, playing with some of your best friends for life.”

But now, they are all focused on their next chapter: playing professional football. 

“College, I think, is special in every person’s and player’s heart,” Lalos said. “Being able to go back to college would be a blast obviously for anybody, so I’m definitely in that boat of probably missing the college days a little bit. [But] I’m happy to be where I am because, no matter where I went to school, this was my end goal.”

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