Lorenzo Alexander has been asked to do almost everything you can imagine in his 10-year NFL career. The former undrafted college free agent out of Cal has been a stalwart on every special teams unit for the four NFL teams for whom he's played. He's been urged to bulk up to 315 pounds try to stick with teams as a run stuffer, and he's been instructed to slim down to 235 pounds to try to play with more speed on the edge.
He's been a football vagabond, an easily coachable, team-first, do-anything contributor, bopping around the league on a series of one-year, veteran-minimum deals, fighting to make rosters with his special teams acumen and his willingness to fill in at any number of positions in the front seven. And then 2016 happened. Alexander was signed to be a role player -- forever a bubble guy -- in Buffalo, on another minimum salary benefit contract, hoping to extend his career through his early-30s on guts and guile and football intellect. Instead, after a series of injuries to Bills linebackers, he became one of the premier players in Rex Ryan's defense, a pass-rushing dynamo whose shocking career turn had him leading the NFL in sacks much of the season and now has him poised to be one of the most interesting and intriguing free agents in a weak 2017 class.
Few players have ever done what Alexander accomplished -- literally altering the entire complexion of his football profile at age 33, in yet another new and unfamiliar system. He's gone from a tweener defensive tackle/end to one of the most productive and consistent pass-rushing forces in the NFL. Few players have been asked to alter their bodies and adapt the way Alexander has, and after totaling 16 starts (12 of them coming all the way back in 2010) and nine sacks through the first nine years of his career, Alexander ended up starting all 16 games for the Bills and finishing tied for third in the league with 12.5 sacks. He's managed to get better with time in the world's most unforgiving team sport and now, finally, more than a decade into his self-made career, Alexander is now positioned for teams to have to adapt for him. With his newfound pass-rushing acumen another layer on top of his already renowned versatility, he's in line for what will be by far the biggest pay day of his NFL career (and probably his final bite at that financial apple as well).
This is certainly unprecedented terrain for Alexander, who will turn 34 in May, but when you have been through all he has, maintaining perspective come easily. Alexander, who has been a staple in the community everywhere he has played and whose devotion to charity work has defined him since early in his career, has tried to follow the advice Joe Gibbs gave him back in 2006, when Alexander was finally added to an NFL active roster after bouncing around on practice squads.
"Your role can change drastically from week to week, and within games," Alexander said. "So you always have to be ready, and I've always tried to make sure that I was that guy who the coach could trust if called on to do whatever he had to do for the team. I was taught that a long time ago by coach Gibbs. He told me the best guys don't always last the longest, it's the guys you trust who end up sticking around."
Alexander was signed out of Cal by the Panthers in 2005, who envisioned him as a 4-3 defensive tackle, and he was back on their practice squad the following year, then released. Alexander spent about a week on Baltimore's practice squad before he was signed by Washington, where he would stay until 2012, when he signed with Arizona. Alexander was quickly welcomed by coaches and veteran players in Washington for his attitude, work ethic and personality, and he would become a fan favorite as well and pillar in the community. He still resides in Virginia and does the bulk of his charity work there as well as Oakland, where he was born and raised.
Much of Alexander's longevity is attributable to his special teams ability, where he remains a standout on punts and kickoffs and on the punt return units. His exceptional breakout season in Buffalo didn't change any of that, and Alexander remains committed to contributing on those units wherever he lands in free agency. The Bills are interested in retaining him, but since he signed a minimum salary benefit deal, they have no exclusive negotiating rights to him and he cannot sign with any team until the 2017 league year begins next month.
Alexander signed with the Bills with almost no expectations, and ended up putting together an All Pro season at another new position.
"My role was going to be a special teams ace and to rotate in with all the packages and things I could on third down," Alexander said, "and to give some versatility. That was what Rex had planned out, and I was all up for that."
Instead, Alexander ended up starting as an outside linebacker with rookie Shaq Lawson injured for the offseason and much of the regular season, and seven games into the season Alexander had already matched his career high with nine sacks (with at least a half-sack in seven straight games). He was virtually un-blockable in some games and the rare bright spot on a wilting Bills' defense that resulted in Ryan being fired with one game to play.
"I think I've always had the ability to rush the passer," Alexander said this weekend, already well into his offseason routine which starts quickly after the season with Pilates and stretching. "I don't think I'm a natural pass rusher, and I'm not a guy with the skill set of Von Miller and Khalil Mack. I need volume, and most guys need volume, because we aren't as fast as some of those guys and we've got to set the tackle up and we go against some pretty good, very athletic tackles. So it takes three quarters sometimes to set a guy up, and this was really my first time to have opportunity to be on the field for that amount of time to do it."
In Washington, bookend pass rushers Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan were ahead of Alexander on the depth chart and he was bounced around the defensive line. His time in Arizona -- the only place he made more than the veteran minimum, earning $2 million one season -- was cut after playing just three games in his first season there because of injury. And a homecoming with the Raiders in 2015 lasted just one season (privately, some on that staff have grumbled that they should have found a way to deploy Alexander differently to complement Mack).
The Bills guaranteed Alexander just $75,000 of his $885,000 one-year salary in what turned out to be one of their rare recent personnel forays to prove fruitful. But even now that could backfire because of the timing of Alexander's monster season and the mounting free-agent interest. He very well may have led the NFL in sacks had the Bills not shifted his role, yet again, to more of a stack linebacker position late in the season, needing to sell out to stop the run after being gouged on the ground all season long. In that role he took up space to allow Lawson and Jerry Hughes to make plays off the edge.
Alexander isn't fixated on stats -- he's never been that kind of guy so no reason to fall prey to it now -- or scheme fit, as he will be attractive to various teams in free agency.
"I'm a football player," Alexander said. "I play off the ball as a stack linebacker, and I play on the line of scrimmage as an outside defensive end, and have good film at both positions ... I'm excited about what the future brings. I'm a throwback football player. You can't pigeon hole me, and people have always tried to do that. But every time they do I try to break the mold and show what I can do."
The prospects for Alexander should be ripe. Washington is dead set on adding to its defensive front, and San Francisco is doing the same. Staying close to home would be big for Alexander. There is also Cleveland, where his former defensive coordinator in Washington, Gregg Williams, is trying to rebuild that sad sack unit from scratch and will need veterans to help embody and teach his complicated scheme to that young roster.
Of course, finding a comparable player -- to have this kind of signature pass rush season at this stage of his career -- isn't particularly easy. Alexander's agent, Peter Schaffer, surmised his client will land "between $5 million and $10 million per year" on a short-term free agent deal, understanding this is a unique case which explains that wide range.
Back in 2010 (eons ago in NFL contract years), for instance, John Abraham was making $7M after his tenth season coming off a double-digit sack season. In 2014, an aging Jared Allen was making $8M in a year in which he registered just 5.5 sacks. Of course, those players had a more established rushing pedigree, but then again this free-agent class is utterly lacking in that commodity and Alexander made it happen last year despite a suspect cast around him and with the coaching staff under extreme duress.
Alexander vows to work harder than ever this offseason -- he concedes, ever his own worst critic -- that he may have taken a few too many rare days off and done too many personal appearances in 2012, the last time there was a modicum of outside interest in him. He also believes the additional speed and agility when he plays at 235 pounds is an advantage, and ideally he'd find a home playing at that weight in 2017. Given how he's evolved since then, this will be an unusual situation for him, with more teams and more money on the table as the signing period approaches. Besides working out, he'll spend time with his family and continue his aggressive outreach -- I ran into him on the National Mall last July 4 for a huge fundraiser and day of activities for TAPS (the Tragedy Assistance Programs for Survivors) families who have lost loved ones in service to the military.
By the time he attends his next charity event for his foundation -- a bowling fundraiser in Oakland in April (www.lorenzoalexander.org) he stands to be a much richer man. How rich, will be one of the more unusual test-cases for NFL free agency, but Alexander already learned long ago to enjoy the ride beyond the paychecks.
"We'll just go into March and figure things out then," Alexander said. "The last couple of years I've been on the other end of the spectrum, with one or two teams interested, and it's much easier when it's like that because the money is pretty much the same and the roles are all the same. So it's a harder decision when you have a bigger marker. I'm just praying that it's an easy decision, and it all works out. We'll see when it comes time to sign."