Last year was a whirlwind for everyone, and the National Football League was no exception. From virtual meetings in the offseason to playing in mostly empty stadiums, nothing about a COVID football season truly felt right (especially if you despise Tom Brady).
There were extra sprinkles of difficulty for rookies coming into the league in 2020 and Arizona Cardinals defensive lineman Rashard Lawrence was no exception.
"It feels better," said Lawrence when asked about how it feels to be at training camp for his second season.
"It's a special feeling, knowing that going into Year 2 that you understand what's going on, how the days are going to be, how practices are coordinated. So to go out there and get some work in with the guys, it felt a lot better than the first day last year, so it was fine."
When asked what he could personally do, Lawrence had mentioned how COVID impacted him personally:
"I think I could do a lot, especially kind of with the COVID year last year, not really getting the OTA reps and the minicamp reps to have a version of that this year, it was good to understand how offenses work in the league and see how o-lines do things," Lawrence said Wednesday after the first practice of training camp.
"So it was definitely a good thing that I have my feet (under me) and hit the ground running this year."
The Cardinals have made an effort to beef up their front seven with the additions of J.J. Watt and Jordan Phillips the previous two offseasons. Lawrence spoke about Watt arriving to the team and immediately making everybody around him better:
"I like it (signing Watt). I think we were young last year, especially when CP (Corey Peters) went down, that was kind of a big blow for us, confidence-wise," said Lawrence.
"But bringing in a guy like J.J., from the day he came in the weight room in the first day, I mean, he was out-lifting everybody and out-running everybody. And this is bringing a special bond to this group that we really need. So with him and Jordan back (from injury), I think we have a chance to be really special."
Lawrence also doubled-down on Watt being a great human being.
"The day we went in the weight room, he was in there with me, Zach (Allen) and (Michael) Dogbe, and he is a strong cat man. Zach and Dogbe are yoked up too, but he came in there and was going hundreds of pounds over what they were doing. I was like OK, he's a freak. He's the real deal," said Lawrence.
Watt's abilities to push Hulk-like numbers in the gym come very close to his abilities to impact a football game. Notorious for being a master of the batted ball near the line of scrimmage, Lawrence is hoping Watt is able to share a thing or two with him and the rest of the defensive line.
"I think that's very important," said Lawrence when prompted about knocking down passes at the line of scrimmage.
"It's probably why we brought him (Watt) in, because we were talking about that in the meeting room with (defensive line) Coach Buck (Brentson Buckner) that we were probably one of the worst in the league at batting down balls and you harassing the quarterback with things like that.
"Because in today's day and age, it's not always about sacks and things like that, you got to get some of these great quarterbacks off their spots and bat balls down and frustrate them. So I think it's gonna be big with our development, especially with him, you know, teaching us how he does it."
While Year 2 of his career is set to begin on the grass of State Farm Stadium, Lawrence reflects on how a different rookie season impacted both himself and fellow 2020 fourth-round pick Leki Fotu:
"I think on top of the COVID and kind of getting in late and doing everything virtually, it was definitely a learning curve," said Lawrence.
"And then on top of that with the injury I had it would kind of set me back, but the last four or five games I really think I played some of my best ball and me and Leki, we both said, 'Okay, this is how this goes. This is how an offense in the NFL is.'
"So I think it was definitely a learning curve, but to be out there now and to go Day 1 and know OK, this is how things are operated, is definitely a lot better than it was last year.
"But for Year-2 guys like myself and Leki, I think this was a night and day difference in how we approach practice and understood what we were doing during practice. And I think that's gonna really help us get a chance to take that to the games."
Lawrence and Co. will have their first chance to do that in the first of three preseason games for 2021, as the Cardinals are set to host the Dallas Cowboys on Aug. 13.