Late-Blooming Lorenzo Alexander: From Glue Guy to NFL Sack Leader

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistOctober 27, 2016

BUFFALO, NY - OCTOBER 16:  Lorenzo Alexander #57 of the Buffalo Bills sacks Colin Kaepernick #7 of the San Francisco 49ers during the second half at New Era Field on October 16, 2016 in Buffalo, New York.  (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)
Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

Lorenzo Alexander leads the NFL with nine sacks in 2016, despite the fact that the 10th-year Buffalo Bills pass-rusher had just nine total sacks during his first nine NFL seasons. 

The 33-year-old is one of just two players in football with more than six sacks and 20-plus total tackles (along with the legendary Von Miller), despite the fact he started just 16 games while being employed by five different teams during the first nine years of his career. 

The 245-pound linebacker is one of only seven total players with at least three forced fumbles, and Pro Football Focus graded him the seventh-best 3-4 outside linebacker in the league, despite the fact he entered the NFL as a 315-pound, undrafted defensive tackle in 2005 and didn't play a regular-season snap for another two years.

NFL sack leaders through Week 7
PlayerSacksAgeAverage Salary
1. Lorenzo Alexander9.033$0.9M
2. Von Miller7.527$19.1M
3. Brian Orakpo7.030$7.8M
4. Vic Beasley6.524$3.6M
4. Cliff Avril6.530$7.1M
Sources: Pro-Football-Reference.com and Spotrac

For more than a decade, Lorenzo Alexander was unfamiliar to fantasy football owners and anonymous to the vast majority of casual football fans.       

And then, suddenly, everything changed. 

         

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The physical evolution of Lorenzo Alexander

Perform a Google search for Lorenzo Alexander in his draft year of 2005, and as far as articles go, you get nothing but a mid-January positional draft rankings post on an obscure, long-defunct draft blog. There, the Cal product is listed as the 10th-best defensive tackle in his class. 

Three months later, 16 defensive tackles were drafted. Alexander was not one of them. He spent the next two years on practice squads in BaltimoreCarolina and Washington before earning a shot on special teams and as a reserve defensive tackle with the Washington Redskins in 2007. 

LANDOVER, MD - AUGUST 25: Lorenzo Alexander #97 of the Washington Redskins celebrates against the Indianapolis Colts during a preseason NFL game at FedEx Field on August 25, 2012 in Landover, Maryland. The Redskins beat the Colts 30-17. (Photo by Joe Robb
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

But in order to survive in the NFL, Alexander had to establish himself as a jack-of-all-trades. The Redskins used him as a tight end, a fullback and even a guard. They began calling him the "one-man gang." In '07, he played more regular-season snaps on offense than on defense. And in '08, he began to realize that in order to make himself available at more positions in the front seven, he'd have to cut down from 300-plus pounds.

"It was really out of necessity," Alexander told Bleacher Report. "I was undrafted and painted as a backup, a special teams guy. So coaches each year would either try to move my position or change me just to help the team. I was willing to do that, but in order to play certain roles I had to lose weight." 

That transition from 315 pounds to 245 took about four years. Along the way, Alexander became a stud special teamer and a quality backup defender in Washington, culminating in a Pro Bowl nod as the NFC’s special teams selection in 2012. And that willingness to change could be a big reason why he's lasted this long and is, in fact, peaking at the ripe age of 33. 

"Being lighter now, my knees don't hurt," he said. "I have more energy; I'm healthier. I can feel a huge difference now that I've lost all that weight."

Here he is now, well on his way to an All-Pro-caliber season as a remarkably productive sack artist, despite the fact he says he isn't a natural pass-rusher. 

Dec 21, 2014; Glendale, AZ, USA; Arizona Cardinals outside linebacker Lorenzo Alexander (97) before facing the Seattle Seahawks at University of Phoenix Stadium. The Seahawks won 35-6. Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports
Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

This all could have—and probably should have—happened three years ago, when Alexander leveraged that special teams Pro Bowl nod into a three-year, $9.5 million contract with the Arizona Cardinals.

He was a Week 1 starter for Arizona in 2013 and tied a career high with five quarterback pressures while also registering four tackles that week against the St. Louis Rams, but a season-ending Lisfranc injury in Week 3 spoiled his inaugural year with the Cardinals.

He never started another game for Arizona and was released after playing special teams throughout the 2014 season. It was the same deal in 2015, when he signed a one-year deal with the Oakland Raiders. He played just 44 defensive snaps and recorded only three solo tackles. 

           

The mental and spiritual evolution of Lorenzo Alexander

Alexander's life changed the day teammate Sean Taylor's ended. He and Taylor were both 24 years old when intruders shot the superstar Redskins safety in his Miami-area home in 2007. 

"It had a huge impact on my life, just as far as me doing a self-evaluation," he said. "He was really starting to make a transition in his life as far as growing up, really becoming a man and being more wise. And then he was gone. 

"So looking at my life, I was probably in a similar type of transition—still trying to grow up a little bit. I wanted to give myself to something bigger—and that was Christ—and become more conservative instead of everything being about me. And I think it helped with my career because I no longer was playing for myself."

Not only does Alexander say that experience helped him find God, but it helped him mature as a professional athlete and as a man. It helps to explain why he doesn't play with a manufactured chip on his shoulder—or, as he calls it, "false enthusiasm." He holds no ill will for the many general managers who didn't draft him despite calling on draft day to say they would or for the many teams that didn't give him a shot once he reached the NFL level. 

"When we played the Cardinals this year, people were saying I should be angry because they let me go," he said. "But they let me go for a reason. When I was there, I was hurt; I wasn't playing that well. I don't play the game to get back at them."

LANDOVER, MD - SEPTEMBER 01:  Lorenzo Alexander #97 of the Washington Redskins warms up before the start of a preseason game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at FedExField on September 1, 2011 in Landover, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Rob Carr/Getty Images

Alexander's faith is also a factor in why he chooses not to wonder what could have been had he gained this type of opportunity earlier, had he not gone down with that crushing Lisfranc injury in September 2013. 

"Things happen for a reason, and God put me where I need to be," he said. "And besides, it's an even better story doing it at 33. Everybody's like, 'Wow, how's he able to do it at 33?' versus when it was kind of expected coming off a Pro Bowl year." 

It's true. When he signed with the Bills, Alexander had just one sack in his previous three NFL seasons. 

      

Right place, strange time

If/when Alexander records his 10th sack, he'll become the oldest player in NFL history to notch his first double-digit-sack season. And while he deserves a lot of credit for making the biggest plays of his career at an age at which most NFL players have retired, he said that none of this would be happening if not for the chance the Bills have given him. 

"This is the first time that I've had this much of an opportunity to play defense and be on the field on first, second and third down," Alexander said. "If you go from 15-20 snaps a game to close to 50, your production is going to naturally increase."

Lorenzo Alexander's career
SeasonStartsSnapsSacksTackles
20071720.02
200802892.011
200902462.018
2010126491.532
20110110.09
201203252.534
20133800.04
20140531.011
20150440.05
2016 pace1674520.554
Sources: Pro-Football-Reference.com / Pro Football Focus

It didn't look as though this opportunity would present itself when he signed with the Bills in April. Buffalo surely figured he would play a large role on special teams, but that's about all you expect when you give a guy a one-year contract worth the veteran minimum of $885,000. 

The Bills already had expensive veteran Jerry Hughes ($9 million average salary) and first-round rookie Shaq Lawson slated to play major roles as edge-rushers, and in the spring, it appeared as though veteran Jarius Wynn and former New York Jets sixth-round pick IK Enemkpali were also ahead of Alexander on the team's depth chart. 

But Lawson and Enemkpali got hurt, Wynn got cut, and suddenly, Alexander was a Week 1 starter for only the second time in his pro career. 

Jeffrey T. Barnes/Associated Press

That week in Baltimore, he split a sack with defensive tackle Leger Douzable, and he's had at least one sack in every game since—including three in one half against the Los Angeles Rams in Week 5. 

Alexander noted, though, that his late emergence hasn't just been about increased playing time. He gives a lot of credit to first-year Bills defensive line coach John Blake, as well as the preparation process head coach Rex Ryan's team has in place.

"This is probably the only place I've been where we emphasize the fundamentals of pass rushing this much," he said. "Every Thursday, working on our knee bend, turning the corner, working our hands. It's not that they were doing something wrong in the other places I've been, but we just didn't focus on that as much. And I think being in that groove has really helped me."

Alexander's career as a defensive starter looked as though it was left for dead in Arizona and Oakland. But the right set of circumstances in Buffalo changed everything. 

                

Not everybody is surprised

Alexander's only sustained playing time on defense in Oakland came in the final week of the season, when he posted a positive PFF grade, recorded a quarterback hurry, two tackles and two defensive stops in a 26-snap run. He stated that effort had Raiders coaches privately saying they should have used him more over the course of the season. 

"Sometimes people just don't know," he said. "They're not comfortable, they don't know who you are or they're unfamiliar with you. So they're not going to pick you up or use you because they don't know what you're all about." 

Oct 9, 2016; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Buffalo Bills outside linebacker Lorenzo Alexander (57) brings down Los Angeles Rams quarterback Case Keenum (17) during the 4th quarter at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.  The Bills went on to a 30-19 win. Mandatory Cred
Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

Ryan knew what Alexander was about. Back when he was coaching the Jets in 2013, he wanted him as a free agent. Interest still lingered three years later, and the Bills gave Alexander what might have been his final shot. 

"I had no idea that he was still the same player," Ryan said earlier this month, per New York Upstate's Matthew Fairburn. "He might be a better player. How it happens, I'm not sure. Obviously I know one thing. It's hard work, and his dedication and all that. He's an outstanding teammate, too. You guys have no idea. He deserves all the credit."

That's not the first time Alexander's coach has given him high praise. In Washington, Mike Shanahan called him the best special teams player he'd been around.        

"You don't find many guys like Lorenzo," Shanahan said, according to Jason Reid of the Washington Post.

The general public might only be learning Alexander's name now, but the football world has respected him for the majority of his 10-year career. He still might not be a star, but he's always been a grinder. And now he's producing like the former. 

It sort of obscures his place in the NFL hierarchy. 

"Every guy who is in the NFL was a superstar in high school and college, to some degree," Alexander said. "So when you get to the league, it's all about opportunities. Some of the guys who are drafted early get more [opportunities]. If you have elite talent, you're always going to shine.

"But there's an assumption that teams need 53 Von Millers in order to have success, which isn't true because everybody can't be Von Miller. Those glue guys who you don't really hear about are in my opinion the lifeblood of your team. People don't understand the importance of those guys because they think it's all about the star power, the guys who make the most money."

Thus far this season, Alexander is both elite and a minimum-salary glue guy. He's technically old, but his play looks young. He's cheap but productive. He's a linebacker who can play inside, outside, standing up or with his hand in the dirt. Or, if you ask him nicely, tight end, fullback or guard. And he's a starter, but he noted that with the rookie Lawson finally back from injury, he's OK with also being a teacher if it means helping the team win. 

So next time you hear someone say they can do everything, show them the NFL's latest late bloomer and ultimate multitasker, Lorenzo Alexander—a journeyman for nine years before, suddenly, it seemed everything changed.    

           

Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012. Advanced stats courtesy of Pro Football Focus unless otherwise noted.