Only two days had passed since the end of the 2020 season, barely enough time for Kliff Kingsbury and his coaches to conduct the breadth of their exit interviews with players, when the work started again.
Zach Allen and Michael Dogbe, inseparable as workout partners since arriving in 2019's draft class, were half the quartet. Fellow defensive linemen Rashard Lawrence and Leki Fotu, draftmates from the 2020 class, became the other half.
There were hours of workouts. Video study. Bonding. And the knowledge that the Cardinals – who at that point had not signed J.J. Watt or knew if Corey Peters would return – would need them.
"We just wanted to set the standard for ourselves," Allen said. "We are tired of being called young guys, with young guy mistakes. This is our time now."
Watt is the unquestioned leader of the defensive line. Peters' return after a patellar tendon injury provides the familiar comfort of a mentor that all four of the younger linemen embrace.
But with the news Jordan Phillips again has landed on injured reserve, the four recent draft picks understand their decision back in January can have a real impact on the 2021 defense.
"We took it upon ourselves to really try and grow in this league," said Dogbe, a one-time sixth-round pick who spent most of last season on the practice squad. "We had to get stronger and bigger. And bonding together as a D-line, that was important to us this offseason. It showed throughout camp. We played a lot better together as far as communicating and relying on each other."
The physical transformation has been most apparent on Allen and Dogbe. Allen, who had been playing at 285 pounds, looks leaner but actually weighs slightly heavier after dropping six percent bodyfat. Dogbe, the one player who didn't get regular playing time last season, completely changed his body, hulking out at a muscular 298 pounds to open camp when he had been between 275 and 280 pounds last year.
For Lawrence and Fotu, the advancements are more about the mental side of the game, especially after Covid wiped out on-field work last offseason and all the preseason games were cancelled.
"Knowing how our first year went and knowing how the season went, we clicked right there and automatically knew in all our heads we had to get to work," Fotu said.
The days were simple. A four-hour workout in the morning. A trip home to have lunch, and video study for an hour or two. Then another workout for an hour or two.
The urgency was already there, and then Watt was signed.
"When you bring in a guy like J.J., the standard is going to be higher, the spotlight is going to be on us, and this team has playoff expectations, and to be honest, Super Bowl expectations," Allen said. "You want to be a part of that. You don't want to be on the sidelines or a distraction or a weak link."
With Phillips on the sideline, the Cardinals can't afford that, either.
"We enjoyed it," Lawrence said. "We didn't have to come in, but we were just getting better and doing what we can making ourselves better players."