PITTSFORD – Don't ask Lorenzo Alexander for his "natural" weight. He doesn't know what it is.
When he was in seventh grade, he weighed 235 pounds. Early in his NFL career, he was a 315-pound offensive guard, the position to which he shifted after entering the league as a defensive tackle when the Carolina Panthers signed him as an undrafted free agent from the University of California.
Now, at 34 years old and entering his 11th pro season, Alexander is back to 235. That's about 10 pounds less than he was in 2016, his first season as a linebacker with the Buffalo Bills.
"I wanted to come in this year a little bit lighter," he said after Sunday's practice at St. John Fisher College. "I knew my role was going to be different, I was going to be in more space. I also know last year I kind of got nicked up. A lot of that had to do with the volume (of plays), but some of that had to do with the weight as well.
"I feel good, I feel fresh. Hopefully, this is my natural weight, because when I'm done playing, I definitely don't want to balloon."
Although Alexander is much closer to the end of his career than the beginning, it could be argued that he's just hitting his stride. He played well enough last season to convince new coach Sean McDermott to sign him to a contract after his one-year deal expired. McDermott saw Alexander as a perfect fit at strong-side linebacker in his 4-3 base scheme. The defense utilizes a great deal of zone coverage, which means unless the Bills are blitzing on first and second down, Alexander will do more running to cover pass-catchers than he did as a 3-4 outside linebacker for Rex Ryan.
And after being one of the few pleasant surprises on the '16 Bills, by going from a projected reserve/special-teams plugger to starter/Pro Bowler with 12.5 sacks, Alexander carries the weight of greater expectation. He's supposed to be a catalyst, not a pleasant surprise.
"And I accept that responsibility," Alexander said. "I know that's something that I'm capable of doing. All that I say is just put me on the field, give me the opportunity to play and I'm going to make plays within the scheme, along with my teammates. When you have Kyle Williams, Jerry Hughes, Marcell Dareus, Shaq Lawson lined up in front of you, as a linebacker, if you're not making plays with those type of guys, then you're not doing a good job.
"And I feel that I'm capable of doing that. Through study, great coaching and me just going out there and playing hard and fast for four quarters, I'm going to put up some good numbers. It may not be 12.5 sacks, but it's going to be impactful in the game to help us win games."
Being 34 while sharing the field with a bunch of twenty-somethings also brings its share of challenges. Hughes and Lawson call Alexander, "Unc." He laughs at the nickname, but knows that it's a reminder he is the old man out there.
After taking over as coach last January, McDermott wasn't exactly sure what the Bills had in Alexander. Was his performance an anomaly? Was it merely an outlier, given his age and that most of his 10 years in the NFL were spent covering kicks?
The coach did some extensive research before deciding to keep Alexander around.
"There’s research projects that come to conclusions that aren’t good and this one turned out to be just the opposite of that," McDermott said. "Everyone I talked to in the building, everyone I talked to that knew Lorenzo first of all spoke of his character and then his work ethic. So, the intangibles that I knew of were there.
"And then we turned on the film as a staff and our defensive staff evaluated Lorenzo on the field – just like we did with every player, quite honestly – it came up all pluses. We felt like it was important for us to get Lorenzo back in the mix, and obviously, it got worked out and the rest is history at this point."
Alexander has played in just about every style of defense imaginable. In his stints with the Panthers, Baltimore Ravens, Washington Redskins, Arizona Cardinals, and Oakland Raiders, he alternated between the 4-3 and the 3-4 and many variations of each.
His current defense closely resembles one of the ones the Redskins used -- and former Bills linebacker London Fletcher helped him learn -- during his seven seasons with them.
"All I'm really doing is just tapping into that old notebook and kind of knocking off some of the dust and some of my old rules, and just kind of polishing it up out here," Alexander said. "Third down won't be any different. I'll be rotating in there with Shaq and Jerry, and then maybe even inside like it did last year, where I lined up as a three-technique working with Kyle. Just kind of a mixture of things, just depending on how they want to use me."
Alexander heard his defensive teammates complain about the communications problems and rampant confusion within Ryan's defense. Why didn't it negatively effect him?
"I think a Rex Ryan defense is for a mature crowd," Alexander said. "At the end of the day, it's pretty much all the same stuff. It's football. I think you have to know the defense and the scheme, and then if you play hard within the scheme, you're going to make plays.
"It's easy to do. You just have to have opportunity. There are some guys that get more opportunity than others, some guys are more gifted and some guys are both of those. They're gifted and have the opportunity to go out there and put up numbers every year. I finally got my shot to do that on defense last year, and I hope to continue on that path and continue to build on that."
By maintaining a youthful enthusiasm and following a healthy diet and intensive conditioning that gives him a chiseled physique that his youngest teammates would envy, Alexander has a good chance to do so.