The Indianapolis Colts aren’t afraid to experiment when looking for free agents, and former basketball player Erik Swoope is no exception. Basketball players transitioning to the NFL is hardly a new thing; it’s been going on since the 1960’s, with various levels of success. But as of late, the evolution of the tight end position specifically has seen it nearly taken over. You almost feel like you’re behind the curve if you don’t have a basketball guy.
Observe a few basketball players turned tight ends: Tony Gonzalez, Antonio Gates, Julius Thomas and Jimmy Graham. Big names with great football numbers, but if you look at their basketball histories, there are some patterns that might show the blueprint for a successful transition — athletic, but so-so basketball forwards. Teams make the NCAA tournament. They’re quick, good at taking charging fouls, and decent at blocking shots.
Thomas played college football as a fifth year senior. Graham played one year of Miami Hurricanes football, too. Gonzalez was a two-sport athlete throughout college. Gates had planned to be a two-sport athlete in college, but was forced to choose, and at the time, went with basketball. The point is, all of these guys who achieved elite status had some gridiron experience prior to joining the league.
Our first instinct might be to try comparing Swoope on a scale of one-to-Jimmy Graham, especially given their Miami connection. But the Colts keep bringing up their former tight end Marcus Pollard, who also never played football prior to joining the team in 1995. He didn’t really have any stats to speak of until around 1998 (which, maybe not coincidentally, is also when Peyton Manning started throwing him the football). But regardless of his slow start, Pollard was on the Colts’ roster for 10 years, and stayed in the league for four more years after that.
So, where does Swoope fit on this basketball-turned-football-player success matrix? Swoope is a 6-foot-5 forward (same size as Thomas, check). He’s never played football before (Pollard, check). Two of his four seasons at Miami, Swoope averaged double-digit playing minutes and a block every-other game (half-check). In 2013, his Miami team made it to the NCAA Sweet Sixteen (one round better than Graham, check). I couldn’t find specific numbers to back it up, but there does seem to be anecdotal evidence that Swoope plays a physical game and drew his share of fouls (check). And he has a fantastic pro-athlete name (big check).
We can see why the Colts want to give the kid a chance, but the bigger question will be how motivated Swoope is to integrate into a new sport. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal in 2012, Graham said that typically, when a college basketball player approaches him asking if they should go out for the NFL, he tells them no because he doesn’t think they could handle it. And tight end is hardly an area of need for the Colts right now, with Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen both entering their third year.
Swoope is a project, a guy picked up in free agency for the practice squad, and that’s fine. But coach Chuck Pagano said in an interview on May 25 that Swoope was already proving a quick learner, and he “exceeded our expectations way beyond anything that you’d ever imagine for a guy whose never played.” He’s fast, he has the sort of leaping ability you’d expect, and he was unusually strong for a basketball player, even before joining the Colts. He’s doing everything right. If he’s able to make the final roster, don’t be surprised to see him on the field with the special teams unit sooner rather than later.