INDIANAPOLIS -- After a decade's worth of doing the dirty work as one of the NFL's habitually unheralded utility men, Lorenzo Alexander got the football world's attention in 2016, making a stunning run at the NFL sack title. So when the Buffalo Bills' veteran pass rusher and special teams standout got singled out by then-offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn at a team meeting the night before a mid-November game at Cincinnati, he expected to soak up some hard-earned glory.
"Rex (Ryan) asked some of his coaches to get up and talk, and A-Lynn was one of them," Alexander laughingly recalled last Wednesday at the Westin in downtown Indianapolis, where, in his role as an NFL Players Association executive committee member, he had come for meetings timed to coincide with the NFL Scouting Combine. "During his speech, [Lynn] goes, 'We got guys out here like Lo Alexander ... Where are you, Lo? Stand up.' So I stand up, and he looks at me and says, 'Lo, when you came here (in 2016), I thought you were a bum. I didn't think you would make this team. But you proved me and everybody else wrong, and you're out here working hard and making plays, and it's great to see.'
"I was [thinking], Was that a compliment? Thanks ... I guess. But hey, I'll take it."
Now, as Alexander explores his options heading into the market as an unrestricted free agent -- free agency begins at 4 p.m. ET on Thursday, with wall-to-wall coverage on NFL Network -- the 33-year-old outside linebacker is looking for a more tangible reward. With the Bills among numerous teams interested in his eclectic skill set, Alexander hopes to land a deal that reflects the unexpected boost to his reputation.
"People say I'm a one-hit wonder, that I've never done those things before this past season, but it's the first time I've been asked to do them," Alexander said. "So now I get to hit the market, and look: You don't need to wine and dine me. The contract you offer is gonna show me how much you love me. I don't need to go to dinner. I don't need a tour. I don't need to see the city. Just show me the offer."
All things being equal, Alexander said he would like to re-sign with the Bills, the sixth franchise that has employed him since he went unselected in the 2005 NFL Draft -- 12 years and at least 75 pounds ago. His agent, Peter Schaffer, met with Bills executives on Saturday in Indianapolis, and Alexander said he has been told by new Bills head coach Sean McDermott and general manager Doug Whaley that they would like him to return, despite a switch to a 4-3 defensive scheme.
It remains to be seen whether the Bills, who paid Alexander $885,000 for his services in 2016, will be willing to offer as much as other potential suitors, but this much is clear: Adapting to a new system shouldn't be an issue. Originally a 315-pound defensive tackle, Alexander has transformed his physique and become a beacon of versatility, adding stints at defensive end, outside linebacker, inside linebacker, short-yardage safety, fullback, H-back, tight end and guard to his résumé.
Oh, and he's also one of the league's most highly regarded special teams demons, earning a Pro Bowl berth for his efforts following the 2012 season. Against all odds, he made the AFC roster as a linebacker last season and made the most of the opportunity, earning Defensive MVP honors (and the rebuke of Seahawks tight end Jimmy Graham).
"He's a great locker-room guy, someone who put the team first and had everybody's respect," Lynn said. "In training camp, I didn't think he'd make the team, and by the end of the year, he was indispensable. Just a great story."
A five-star recruit before beginning his collegiate career at Cal, Alexander left as a fringe pro prospect, signing with the Carolina Panthers after going undrafted in 2005 and spending the season on the practice squad. After being released, he had a five-day stint on the Baltimore Ravens' practice squad in September of 2006, landing in Washington in a similar capacity the following month.
He finally appeared in an NFL game in Week 5 of the 2007 season, and he remained on Washington's active roster through the 2012 campaign, following up his first Pro Bowl campaign by signing a three-year, $9.5 million free-agent deal with the Arizona Cardinals. By then, he was a lean, mean fighting machine -- the 6-foot-1 Alexander changed his diet and fine-tuned his training regimen and now fluctuates between 235 and 245 pounds.
"People don't believe I weighed 315. I have to show them pictures to prove it all the time," Alexander said. "In 2011, I was back visiting the duplex where I grew up in North Oakland. My great aunt's place is upstairs, and she saw me standing outside and said, 'Who's that out there by your car?' My mom said, 'It's your nephew.' She didn't even recognize me."
At that point, Alexander recognized his value as a special teams coverage ace and blocker, essentially sublimating any notions of shining as a defender.
"I never really thought about it like that," he said. "I was making a good living. I relished my role. I was behind Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan, so they weren't gonna use me to rush the quarterback. That's just the way it is. In Arizona, it was gonna be my time, and then I tore my Lisfranc (early in the 2013 season)."
"(Raiders special teams coach Brad) Seely brought me in, but I could not convince them to play me at all on defense," Alexander recalled. "A couple of guys went down, and I kept telling them, 'I can play defense. I've got the film.'
"At the end of the season, I finally got on the field and had a solid game against Kansas City, and the coaches came up to me and said, 'Man, we should've put you in earlier.' I said, 'I told you.' You don't fake 12 years in this league. They don't keep you around because they like you."
After signing with the Bills for the veteran minimum a year ago, Alexander was assured by Ryan before the start of training camp that the plan was to keep him on the final roster. Injuries at the outside linebacker position -- most notably to first-round draft pick Shaq Lawson, who missed the season's first six games following shoulder surgery -- gave Alexander a long-awaited shot to start, and he quickly took over the league's sack lead, ultimately finishing in third with 12.5.
"I saw he was having a great training camp rushing the passer, and he was flashing in practice," Incognito said. "He had a really strong preseason and continued to make big plays during the season, all the while making plays on special teams, too."
Said Wood: "I thought he would be a good backup and maybe the best special teamer in the league. He still was a top special teamer, but also an impact [pass rusher]."
Alexander, who started all 16 games in 2016, finished with 76 tackles, six passes defensed, three forced fumbles and an interception.
"I walk with a limp -- I've got a natural giddyup -- and when I came in, people looked at me and probably weren't expecting much," Alexander said. "Then I started running in practice and playing and people go, 'Ohhhh, he can play a little bit.' I started earning guys' respect. Obviously, I was surprised 'cause I'd never had 12.5 sacks, but me being able to compete and be a dominant player? I knew I had it in me."
And in late January, when he got to Orlando for the Pro Bowl -- a game not known in recent years for the exceptional effort expended by its participants -- Alexander kept right on competing, ultimately taking home a car as the Defensive MVP for the victorious AFC squad. With his team clinging to a 20-13 lead in the final two minutes, Alexander put a massive hit on Graham following a catch, provoking a strong rebuke from the veteran tight end.
"I'm wired a certain way, and it's hard for me to turn it down," Alexander said. "But I was down a notch from my normal level. Jimmy Graham got mad at me. I hit him a little too hard, and he said, 'Come on, man -- what are you doing? What are you thinking?' Yeah, I hit him ... but it led to a car, so he can be mad all he wants. Maybe I'll put 'Jimmy' on the license plate."
Now, Alexander is hoping to score in free agency, citing the recent extension signed by 35-year-old Dolphins pass rusher Cameron Wake (two years, $18 million, $11 million guaranteed) as a comparable launching point. That might be a bit ambitious, but Alexander -- who plans to continue playing special teams in 2017 and beyond -- is convinced that 2016 was not an aberration.
"This isn't 1985 football, with two padded practices in training camp and a whole lot of hitting during the season," Alexander said. "It's different now. The way I take care of my body, I can play a long time. But I get it. I'm not a household name. I'm pigeonholed.
"Just look what I did last season. You go out there and grind and earn it, and then [people] try to knock you down. I've been a five-star [recruit] and I've been at the bottom. I definitely appreciate my process, 'cause I don't take things for granted. I know how hard I've had to work for everything."