Amid a locker room full of imposing physical presences, Dexter Lawrence is huge in a humongous teddy bear sort of way. He is quick to smile and does not raise his voice much.
“A pleasure to be around,’’ is the way defensive coordinator Patrick Graham puts it. “He has a bubbly personality. He has a way of keeping it light, and I like that.’’
No one wants Lawrence to keep it light on the field, though. There should not be much feathery about a young man his size.
Graham said he met Lawrence during the 2019 scouting combine, when Graham was running the Dolphins defense and taking a look at college prospects.
“I thought he was big then,’’ Graham said.
Graham got another look at Lawrence late last season, when the Dolphins played (and lost to) the Giants.
“And I realized ‘Yeah, this guy is pretty big,’ ’’ Graham said.
The next connection for Graham with Lawrence came this spring, but only via Zoom meetings, where even the biggest are reduced to a small section on a laptop. “Reduced to a 1-inch box,’’ is the way Graham put it.
Finally, coordinator and player saw each other eye-to-eye at the start of training camp.
“All of the sudden, you see him walk in and you think ‘This dude is really big,’ ’’ Graham said.
Lawrence is indeed big, but at 6-foot-4 and 342 pounds, he does not look the same at 21 as he did when he arrived as a rookie. He will never be described as svelte yet he appears, certainly not lean, but definitely leaner.
“I’m gonna weigh what I weigh,’’ Lawrence said. “I just want to feel good.’’
This is a way of saying Lawrence did not drop much in the way of tonnage but he is in better shape. During a coronavirus-filled offseason, he hired a personal trainer. He brought in a chef to work on what he eats and portion control.
“I didn’t really like my build last year, so this year I tried to focus on losing a little bit of weight, just so I can be better on the field,’’ Lawrence said. “I’m out there running and I feel a lot better than I did last year.’’
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It was an NFL indoctrination of learning and adjusting for Lawrence. For such a heavy man, he successfully endured the long rookie slog, starting all 16 games. He finished with 35 tackles, 2.5 sacks and one forced fumble. At times, he flashed signs he could be a dominant run-stopping force. At times, he was surprisingly unnoticeable for one so large. He did resonate with Pro Football Focus, who put Lawrence on its all-rookie team and credited him with 21 hurries, six hits and 30 total quarterback pressures.
Getting to the quarterback was the rub with Lawrence when the Giants, with the first-round pick they acquired by shipping Odell Beckham Jr. to Cleveland, took Lawrence at No. 17 in the 2019 draft. General manager Dave Gettleman insisted Lawrence could push the pocket as an interior rusher, while never promising Lawrence would be a big producer of sacks. It remains to be seen if the three-man defensive line of Lawrence, Dalvin Tomlinson and Leonard Williams can combine for double-digit sacks. That group finished last season with a total of 6.5, so bet the under if you so desire.
Perhaps a better-conditioned Lawrence will be a more explosive pass rusher in year No. 2.
“They needed me in the fourth quarter, needed me to have a little more wind, feel better going into the fourth quarter or even overtime,’’ he said.
Sean Spencer, the new defensive line coach, recalled seeing Lawrence as a high school player in North Carolina and, “was amazed at how fluid he was as an athlete.’’ Graham says what stands out to him about Lawrence is his effort.
“You can feel when a 300-pound man is running to the ball-carrier,’’ Graham said. “You can feel when a 300-pound man is hitting that check-down. The opponents will feel that.’’
Lawrence was a stud at Clemson on a defense loaded with them. He is one of the Giants’ youngest and most potential-laden players. He is also one of the biggest men on the roster and one of the most self-aware.
“Honestly, watching my whole game last year, I needed to work on a lot,’’ he said.
He worked on everything, including his body. The Giants are hoping for big results.
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