TEMPE, Ariz. -- There was some snickering -- OK, outright laughter -- when the Phoenix Cardinals selected Eric Swann with the sixth pick in this year's NFL draft.
Leave it to the Cardinals, people said. Only they would be dumb enough to blow a high first-round pick on a defensive tackle who never had played college football. A sandlotter, for crying out loud.
The laughter grew louder when the 6-foot-4, 310-pound Swann injured his knee in minicamp and underwent the first of two arthroscopic repairs. He was labeled a joke, a $4 million flop.
"I could have let all that [criticism] destroy me, but instead I used it as motivation," Swann said. "It made me more determined to succeed."
Swann still has a long way to go before he establishes himself as a bona fide NFL talent, but at least the massive player from Swann Station, N.C., seems to be moving in the right direction.
He has played the past eight games as part of defensive coordinator Fritz Shurmur's nickel package and he has shown steady improvement. He had two sacks and narrowly missed a third in last Sunday's 14-10 loss to San Francisco.
Lining up at nose tackle, Swann showed almost frightening strength at times, tossing aside 49er center Jesse Sapolu and blowing in on quarterback Steve Bono.
"Eric has matured a lot as a football player," Shurmur said. "A lot of lights have turned on. Things are starting to make sense to him.
"It's all new from the standpoint of having [teammates] on him, coaches on him, all that pressure. He's probably experiencing the same things that college freshmen are now in terms of adjustment, but he's going through it at an even higher level.
"When you put that in perspective with what he has done, it's kind of awesome," Shurmur said. "I've had calls from other coaches the last few weeks who saw the films [on Swann] and said, 'Wow, you've really got something there.' That's what we felt all along."
Swann, 21, was gratified by his performance against the 49ers, but he knows he still has much to learn.
"It was just a step to a beginning," Swann said Thursday.
Eric Swann's story is the stuff of pulp novels and TV movies.
A high school football phenom, Swann couldn't score the required 700 minimum on the Scholastic Aptitude Test to qualify for an NCAA athletic scholarship, so he wound up sweeping trash at the North Carolina State Fairgrounds for $5 an hour.
A chance meeting with a New Orleans Saints scout led Swann to Dick Bell, a sports agent who doubled as general manager of a minor league football team called the Bay State (Mass.) Titans. Swann joined the Titans last season and Bell mailed his game films to the 28 NFL teams.
When the pros studied Swann on film, they saw an enormous man with surprising quickness. Swann wears a size 56 extra long jacket and he has a 20-inch neck, but he moves with the fluid speed of a fullback.
"[Swann] is an elephant who runs like Bo Jackson," said Lide Huggins, director of football operations for the Denver Broncos.
Scouts began visiting the Titans in Lynn, Mass. They found Swann living near the practice field in a seedy hotel. He was hauling pipe for an electric company to pay his expenses. No one drew a paycheck from the Titans, not even Swann. He was living on fast food and hope.
Swann dominated the league (72 tackles, 11 sacks, four blocked field goals), but many scouts questioned the competition. Swann was playing against plumbers and bartenders, bloated ex-high school jocks past their prime. What would he do against $H blue-chip athletes with college experience?
Swann was impressive at the NFL Scouting Combine workouts after the 1990 season. He cleaned 375 pounds in weightlifting and ran the 40-yard -- in 4.8 seconds.
He was an intriguing prospect, certainly, but an enormous gamble for any team in the first round.
It's safe to say every NFL club discussed Swann on draft day, but discussing him and selecting him were two different things.
Phoenix, picking sixth, rolled the dice.
It was a bold call for a franchise that already had a reputation for bungling first-round picks -- quarterback Kelly Stouffer (1987), linebacker Anthony Bell (1986), wide receiver Clyde Duncan (1984) and so on.
There were some worried faces in the Phoenix front office when Swann went down with his knee injury and was idled the first month of the regular season.
Going into today's game against the Philadelphia Eagles, Swann leads all Phoenix linemen with three sacks and four hurries. His main job is to collapse the pocket and flush the quarterback into the arms of blitzing linebackers Ken Harvey (eight sacks) and Freddie Joe Nunn (5 1/2 sacks).
"I've been working with [defensive line] coach [Ted] Cottrell at breaking some bad habits," Swann said. "He has me lining up with my right foot forward so I can shove off quicker and see better.
"I used to take a false step, then go [to the ball]. Coach Cottrell is teaching me to just fire out. I used to lock up with the man blocking me. Now I see that's a waste of time. I shed him and keep moving.