Niko Lalos couldn’t get a scholarship to Notre Dame, Ohio State or any of the other Power 5 conference colleges he hoped to play for. So, he went to Ivy League Dartmouth.
He couldn’t crack the starting lineup his first three seasons at Dartmouth because in front of him was Rocco Di Leo, an FCS All-American who signed to the Cincinnati Bengals’ 90-man roster a year ago as an undrafted free agent, but got cut.
So, Lalos worked at his craft. He bulked up from a 230-pound freshman who was resistant to the idea of playing as a hand-in-the-ground defensive end to 270+ pounds. He became a player Di Leo told me “loves practice more than anyone I know.”
When Lalos got his chance to start for Dartmouth in 2019, he delivered. He ended 2019 with 5 sacks and with defensive line coach Duane Brooks saying Lalos “created havoc” all season long. He was named Division I All-New England, First-Team All Ivy-League, and First-Team Phil Steele All-Ivy League.
All of that earned him an invitation to the post-season Hula Bowl, an all-star showcase game where Lalos, really for the first time, got to show his skills against the Power 5 players he wasn’t supposed to be good enough to compete with.
All he did there was earn MVP of the game with six tackles, two sacks, three tackles for a loss and a forced fumble.
“It was cool to meet guys from Oregon, Oklahoma State, all the big Power 5 schools. Coming out of high school those are the type schools I wanted to go to, it just didn’t work out,” Lalos said.
“I always knew in the back of my mind I had another level and I think I was just eager and excited to finally be at a place where I could exercise that.
“It (the Hula Bowl) showed me a glimpse of another level to my game that I can tap into.”
Lalos also got the attention of a number of NFL teams. He said there were a “handful of teams” interested in him when he went undrafted but “the Giants were the ones that pulled the trigger.”
Lalos signed a three-year, $2.287 million free agent deal with the Giants. All he is guaranteed, though, is a paltry by NFL standards, $5,000.
“Just like any other kid you’re just hoping for a shot. It’s obviously a very hard thing to do to make it this far so I’m just thankful that the Giants were the ones to actually pull the trigger,” Lalos said
“After talking to them I knew it would be a good fit pre-draft. Going into it I was hoping they would be one of the teams, and it worked out.”
There are a handful of undrafted free agent success stories around the NFL every year. Can Lalos be one for the pass-rush needy Giants?
Let’s take a closer look.
Contract: Year 1 of three-year, $2.287 million undrafted free agent contract | Guaranteed: $5,000
How he got here
Study Lalos’s history and it is well documented that he considered walking on at either Notre Dame or Ohio State. He decided against that, and chose Ivy League Dartmouth from a handful of offers he received from lower-level programs.
“At the end of the day this was my dream,” Lalos told me during a recent phone conversation. “I wanted to make it to get a shot at the NFL This is where I wanted to be. Whether I went to Dartmouth, Notre Dame or was home-schooled I think I would be happy with where I’m at right now”
Lalos was a two-sport star at St. Vincent-St. Mary High School in Akron, Oh. (yes, where LeBron James attended). He was a wide receiver and outside linebacker for a two-time state championship football team. He also played basketball, lettering three times for teams that advanced to regional play or beyond each season.
When Lalos landed at Dartmouth as a 230-pound freshman he was handed to defensive line coach Duane Brooks, who told him he would have to learn to become a hand-in-the-ground 5-tech defensive end.
Lalos admits the idea didn’t thrill him.
“It definitely wasn’t my favorite thing at first. Putting my hand in the dirt I thought it was very limiting, not demeaning but I was like ‘why do I have to do this?’ I feel like I can do just as much if not more out of a two-point stance,” Lalos said.
“I got used to it. I ended up coming to fall in love with it.”
These days, Brooks laughingly says that “In his (Lalos’s) mind he is a skill guy and he does skill things, but he weighs 275 pounds. He thinks he’s a skilled athlete.”
Lalos admits he even initially resisted bulking up from 230 pounds.
“Then I realized that’s just not how it works. I saw players like J.J. Watt who are 290 pounds and they’re still moving, and Coach Brooks pretty much told me you can be just like that. You’re going to have to put on weight if you want to play,” Lalos said.
“Definitely happy how it all came out. Can’t deny Coach Brooks knows what he’s talking about.”
Adding bulk was only part of Lalos’s transformation. The other parts included learning, with Di Leo’s help, how to properly study film of opposing offenses and practicing so much on his own that Lalos said he would get “in trouble” with Brooks.
Here is the practice story.
“I wasn’t always that way (addicted to practice),” Lalos said. “When I was younger like in high school I was just like every other kid. When you’re younger you don’t want to practice, you just want to play the games. That’s how every kid is.”
At Dartmouth, though, he said “something flipped in me” and “I almost yearned for getting better.
“I would stay after [to] practice my pass rush moves, my get off, whatever it was. I would get yelled at because they’re trying to turn the lights off or something and Coach Brooks is yelling at me saying no one’s out there if you get hurt. No one’s going to be out there to help you because no one’s going to know.”
Lalos said sometimes practice would be held on far end of campus and “I’m all the way across campus and no one would know if I got hurt or not, so I’d always get in trouble by Coach Brooks.”
Seniors at Dartmouth are allowed to lighten their practice load. Lalos declined.
“I definitely would get made fun of by some of my teammates and friends,” Lalos said. “They’re chilling on the sideline after their one or two reps and I’m staying in for my six, seven, 10, whatever it is.”
Lalos, though, is now the one with the NFL opportunity and the last laugh.
Lalos also credited Di Leo, whose job he was trying to take, with really teaching him how to study offenses.
“He was a big studying film guy,” Lalos said. “He really sat me down and showed me the ropes of how he watched film and how he was breaking down opponents. He definitely helped me.”
Di Leo told me that once Lalos really understood what was happening on the field he went “From being like a robot to being a great player.”
One non-football thing that tells you more about the type of person Lalos is is that he earned a place in the National Football Foundation Hampshire Honor Society, which is for college football players from all divisions of play who each maintained a cumulative 3.2 GPA or better throughout their college career.
“They (Dartmouth coaches) always thought they’d have to watch me really closely to make sure I stayed eligible academically,” said Lalos, an Economics major. “I’m just a very competitive person. When I got into the classroom and realized how smart some of these — that’s the thing that blew my mind the most is how smart some of these kids really are — smartest kids in the world. I just had to adapt as a person. I didn’t want to be that kid that was like the bottom academically. I just competed in the classroom and found myself with a really good GPA.”
All of that makes Lalos an interesting story, which you can tell by the more than 1,500 words I have already used. It makes him a good kid worth rooting for. It sets him up for long-term success.
None of it guarantees he can make it with the Giants, who will ask Lalos to play some 5-tech but also to play on the edge in a two-point stance. It’s what he did in high school, and roughly 50 pounds heavier or not he isn’t worried about it.
“Going back to a two-point stance is just like second nature to me. I already feel comfortable playing out of it,” Lalos said. “It’s not that big of a learning curve. The only thing I’ll have to adjust to is the speed of the game, which I feel like every other rookie is going to have to adjust to, so I feel like I’m right there with everybody else.”
Brooks has no doubts Lalos is athletic enough to make the transition.
“He still runs like he weighs 220,” said Brooks, pointing out that Lalos has been timed unofficially at 4.67 in the 40-yard dash and has been clocked consistently running more than 22 miles per hour on Dartmouth’s GPS tracking system.
If the 4.67 were official, it would be far better than the 5.04 6-5, 275-pound second-round pick A.J. Epenesa ran and would put him in line with the 4.64 (88th percentile) run a couple of years ago by 2017 first overall pick Myles Garrett.
“He’s athletic, he can bend and turn and run. He can do a lot of things. He can long snap it. The thing about Niko is he’s very, very, very fast,” Brooks said.
“He played 1-AA or whatever but he’s just as fast if not faster than those guys. That’s what he’s going to prove when he gets to go to camp.
“If he can stay healthy he’ll give himself a great chance.”
Brooks added that Lalos “looks like an NFL football player would look.”
In Lalos’ performance in the Hula Bowl, Brooks saw a player who was finally beginning to reach his ability level.
“I always told him when you grow up and you play like you look cause he’s a good looking dude you’re gonna be a star,” Brooks said. “Guess what? He’s starting to play like he looks.”
His former teammate, Di Leo, also thinks Lalos has a chance.
“He’s got everything they’re looking for,” Di Leo said.
“The one thing that’s going to hurt him straight away is that although he’s big and he’s long and he’s quick he doesn’t have that grown man look where muscles are popping. But he’s got the strength even though he doesn’t look it.
“His speed to power is as good as anyone in the Power 5.”
Di Leo called Lalos’ ability “very sneaky.”
“Once he gets into camp and they get physical that’s going to be the biggest draw for coaches. They’re going to be like, wow, we didn’t expect this type of strength that we can’t physically see. I think he’s got a real chance,” Di Leo said.
“He’s so long. He runs to the ball. He closes space better than most linebackers.”
The Giants, of course, will take pass rush help from anywhere they can find it.
“I told him if you’re good enough they’ll find you,” Brooks said. “He’s good enough.”