It used to be a head-turning story: the improbable tale of a college basketball player who became a professional football player. Now, after Tony Gonzalez, Antonio Gates, Jimmy Graham, Julius Thomas and Jordan Cameron have all gone from power forward to the Pro Bowl, it's practically cliche.
Now, University of Miami big man Erik Swoope is looking to add his name to the list of collegiate hoopsters in professional huddles.
Does Swoope fit the profile of those who've succeeded in the NFL? Has raw athleticism become so important in today's NFL that a young man who's never played a down of football in his life can make the sport his career?
Is Swoope even going to get drafted?
It all started, as Jeff Eisenberg of Yahoo Sports wrote, when an anonymous Denver Broncos representative called Miami basketball coach Jim Larranaga and asked if Swoope would be interested in working out.
"I was completely shocked," Swoope told Eisenberg. "That was about the last thing I expected Coach L to tell me. Once I figured out this was real and that he wasn't kidding, I was really excited. I took a week to think about it but then I decided I wanted to see what they had in mind."
Swoope hadn't set the world on fire as a basketball player, averaging just 2.6 points and 1.7 rebounds in an average 10.8 minutes played per game, per Sports-Reference.com. Nevertheless, his athleticism and explosion were plain to see:
The Broncos had been watching. Tight ends coach Clancy Barone coached Gates in San Diego and has overseen Thomas' development from fourth-round pick to a 65-catch, 12-touchdown monster. Is Barone just going back to the same well, hoping to strike it rich yet again, or have NFL teams discovered alchemy that turns basketball players into football players?
In 2013, I wrote about the apparent pipeline between college basketball and the NFL. Of course, the most prominent successes were the transition between power forward and tight end.
I asked former Broncos general manager Ted Sundquist why this intra-sport crossover, practically unheard of elsewhere, was becoming routine.
"The tight end position is perfect for the basketball player," Sundquist told me, "in that you've got to have the size and strength to be able to handle the line of scrimmage and block, but at the same time, you've got to have the athleticism, the speed, the quickness and agility and balance to be able to separate from the defender.
"The great thing about this group of players," he said, "is they're big enough to take on defensive backs and 'out-rebound' them. We see that all the time in the red zone, where you throw it up in the back of the end zone and they just go up and take it."
Looking at the big successes, I established a "profile" of the most successful players to transition: "A power forward 6'4" to 6'8" in height, with strength and balance, and a rebounder with aggression, hands and football experience at least the high school level."
Does Swoope fit the profile?
Here are the vital statistics for the top power-forward-to-tight-end converts in the NFL:
|College Power Forwards, NFL Tight Ends|
Gates stands out as a basketball player, as both the numbers and Bleacher Report National College Basketball Lead Writer C.J. Moore told me.
"I remember watching Gates play," Moore said, "and he was a stud."
"[Gates] was probably even good enough to play overseas professionally," Moore said, "even though he was so undersized as a 4. He's the one guy who doesn't really fit with the others, because he was so skilled as an offensive player. He could score off the bounce and even had a jumper. He was also a pretty good rebounder, like the others."
Graham is the physical standout, at 6'7", 265 pounds. He even played at Miami, like Swoope, though Graham made one crucial decision Swoope didn't: Graham played a year with the Miami football team after graduation, giving him critical experience Swoope lacks.
Otherwise, Swoope is roughly the same height as the others and produced numbers in similar ratios to the others—between one and 1.5 points per rebound. The big red flag is his bulk: At 220 pounds, he's simply too lean to play tight end on a down-to-down basis. Can he add the weight he needs to physically dominate in the NFL?
Miami's official athletics website hints it won't be hard; Swoope's official bio claims lost he 20 pounds prior to his senior season and added strength and explosiveness. Can he add that back on as so-called "good" weight, without sacrificing explosiveness?
Evidently, Schiralli liked what he saw; five days later Swoope announced his entry into the NFL draft on his own Twitter feed. Now he's working out with his older brother Devin, a former Division II wide receiver, according to Eisenberg.
Can Swoope boost his stock with workouts and media buzz high enough to actually be drafted? That's his hope.
"It will come down to the conversations I have with teams and my workouts," Swoope told Eisenberg. "In a perfect world, maybe I'd go in the seventh round. But no matter what this has all been extremely exciting. Just the fact I'm getting calls and that I'm considered a potential NFL player is so flattering and so enjoyable."
Maybe Swoope's name gets called out in Radio City Music Hall on May 10th. More likely, his phone will start ringing off the hook as the last two rounds wind down, with teams offering to sign him as an undrafted free agent. Maybe he's simply invited to the Broncos' minicamp and given a chance to earn a chance to make the practice squad.
No matter what, it seems, Swoope thinks the dream of starring in the NFL is more exciting than the reality of criss-crossing the globe, looking for a foreign basketball league that wants him. It may be years before that dream comes true...or it might never come true.
Given the success so many others have had, no one can blame Swoope for trying—and no one can blame the Broncos for trying him out.
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