EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Dexter Lawrence has long enjoyed success on a football field.
In the five years before he joined the Giants as a first-round draft choice in 2019 – two seasons at Wake Forest (N.C.) High School and three at Clemson University – Lawrence's teams were a combined 68-5. The Tigers won two national championships and won all 15 of their games in 2018, his final season (Lawrence did not play in the final two games).
His rookie season as a Giants defensive tackle offered a far different football experience. The team endured a nine-game losing streak and finished 4-12. But Lawrence's long-term success helped him emerge with the right attitude to help make that season an aberration.
"I wouldn't say we lost last year, we kind of learned lessons and that's how I take everything pretty much," Lawrence said today on a Zoom call. "You have to find the positive in all things and find the light in all things. Clearly, no one likes that, but you have to find a way to be better and that's the focus this year."
For Lawrence, the improvement must begin with the man he sees in the mirror. He spent the offseason reforming his body so a leaner Lawrence can be more productive as an NFL sophomore.
"This offseason I definitely focused on (that)," Lawrence said. "I got a personal trainer, we focused on eating, portion control, I got a chef. I didn't really like my build last year (when his listed weight was 342 pounds). This year I tried to focus on losing a little bit of weight just so I can be better on the field. I'm out there running a lot better than I did last year. That's just the goal for me each year. Feel better and be better."
Lawrence, the 17th overall selection in the 2019 NFL Draft, was a dependable rookie. He was one of six Giants to start all 16 games and totaled 38 tackles (24 solo), three tackles for loss and forced one fumble. Highly touted as a player who could provide an inside pass rush, Lawrence contributed 2.5 sacks and nine quarterback pressures.
Will feeling better after losing weight help him become a more consistent pass rusher this season?
"I'll say that's just me being better conditioned," Lawrence said. "I'm going to do what the team asks me to do. They need me to get to the quarterback, I'll do that. They need me to stop the run, I'll be able to do it. Doing that was really for myself and my team. They needed me in the fourth, for me to have a little more wind and feel better going into the fourth quarter or overtime.
"Watching my whole game last year, I need to work on a lot of things. This offseason I learned a lot of things. I educated myself more on my position. That's what the biggest thing is, and I learned that from vets teaching me not just to focus on one thing. Watch your whole game, critique yourself, be a hard coach on yourself. Try to find ways to get better and that's all I can do."
The Giants' new defensive coordinator, Patrick Graham, and line coach, Sean Spencer, are each enthusiastic about Lawrence's potential.
"I don't know what the ceiling will be for him, but I'm just telling you I feel like he is one of the more athletic kids that I've seen, that I have had the opportunity to coach," said Spencer, who came to the Giants after coaching for 24 seasons at the collegiate level. "I knew him in high school back in North Carolina. I watched him do a workout and I was amazed at how fluid he was as an athlete. I'm seeing some of the signs of that already. What his ceiling is, I don't know. We are going to prepare him for the season and I'm going to push him to the brink and try to get the best out of him. We're going to put everything together. He listens and he's a sponge for coaching. We'll make him get to his potential that way."
"The athleticism is there," Graham said. "This guy is a big body who can run, who can bend his knees. The thing that stood out to me, it's a football thing, it's the effort. He plays with really high-level effort in terms of trying to chase plays from the backside. There's a screen play that we showed of this guy, he's a left side defensive tackle, he plants his foot in the ground, I think it was against Tampa Bay, runs down, misses a tackle, he gets there and he is running on top of the tackle. It went from a big gain to a shorter gain because this big man running down the field and it jumped out to me when I got through the tape. Not to take away from him as an interior pass rusher or interior run stopper. The effort he plays with, I'm very excited to see that. When those big guys are the guys leading with the effort on the field, you can feel that. You can feel when a 300-pound man is running to the ball carrier. You can feel when a 300-pound man is hitting that check down, the opponents will feel that. That's exciting to see because I think the guys will feed off of that."
Lawrence is willing to try whatever the coaches wish from him. It's one of the lessons he learned during his rough rookie season.
"Just buying into what the coaches want," Lawrence said. "Everybody being the best version of themselves. Being a team and having good camaraderie and understanding the way things should be done. Not repeating the same mistakes."
That's a great place to start, for Lawrence and the entire Giants team.
*Kevin Zeitler was a fixture at right guard in his first Giants season in 2019 but is apparently not immune from the continual shuffling of players up front in training camp practices.
"The coaches came in and made it very clear, everyone is possible to play any position," Zeitler said. "We're going to work hard to put the best five guys out there. No matter who we play next to in practice, there's always the possibility that could happen at any given time during a game. It's great to work with everyone and it's great to build continuity with everyone so it's never an issue."
*While Lawrence lost weight in the offseason, his close friend and former roommate – quarterback Daniel Jones – worked on adding muscle to his frame.
"He's definitely looking a little buff out there," Lawrence said. "He's looking good, he's getting comfortable and he felt like he needed a little more beef. I gave him a hard time too, so it's all good."