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Roster spot might not be safe for Buffalo Bills linebacker Lorenzo Alexander

If 2017 is an indication, the Buffalo Bills might elect to move on from Lorenzo Alexander to upgrade the linebacker corps

Lorenzo Alexander became a bit of a Cinderella story under former Buffalo Bills head coach Rex Ryan. Ryan’s scheme allowed Alexander to light up opposing QBs in 2016 after a nomadic nine years spent with three other teams and trying out multiple positions. With a new sheriff in town running the team, it was feared that Alexander was a product of the system and that his production would slip. Age concerns have been cited prior to his time in Buffalo and will only increase as ages tend to do (Alexander will turn 35 this offseason).

Under Sean McDermott, Alexander had the second best season of his 11-year career. However, in his three pre-Buffalo stops, Alexander was relegated to spot duty with 2010 being the only year with significant playing time. In comparison to his sole year as a starter, the fears of fans were realized with his 2016 campaign of 12.5 sacks, 1 interception, 6 passes defended, and 50 solo tackles being a clear high-water mark. In McDermott’s scheme, Alexander was equally productive in tackles with 53 solo. With only one pass defended and 3 sacks to his name in 2017, his value in the passing game was statistically well short of the prior season.

We examine Alexander’s performance in 2017 to see if everyone was right about his value being highly dependent on scheme, or if other factors were at play.

Play 1

First, note where Alexander is lined up. As the play develops, his lack of speed is apparent as there’s a couple ways he could get burned here. On the other hand, Alexander rapidly processes who he needs to pursue and who to hand off to his help behind him. While he’s not in position to prevent a play, Alexander puts himself where he can limit the catch. Alexander also quickly identifies where the pass ends up heading and hustles back to the play in case he’s needed.

Play 2

Now he’s on the other side of field. It’s hard to tell on this exact play what kind of power Lorenzo Alexander has because he correctly identifies when the pass rush is no longer needed. To help the reader out, the easy answer is that Alexander struggles to beat one-on-ones with power moves. On the positive side of the ledger here, he shows excellent awareness again and plenty of motor.

Play 3

And now he’s somewhere else again, this time creating some confusion on who is rushing and who is dropping into coverage. Alexander stumbles just a bit on the back end but otherwise had pretty good coverage here. A decent jam disrupts the receiver’s route and even with the stumble he’s in good position to limit any gain after a catch.

Play 4

Here he is in yet another spot on the field. And again, he rapidly recognizes the play and moves to where he can have the biggest impact. Despite being shoved, he’s laser focused on the play and makes a solid tackle. This is Alexander at his best. When the d-linemen get a good push ahead of him, he’ll find the spot he needs to be at and attack it. As Kyle Williams and Shaq Lawson occupy most of the offensive line, Alexander is right where he needs to be. He has adequate speed for the trenches and his excellent play recognition allows him to shine here.

Play 5

Now he’s standing up, for the fifth different role we’ve shown. Here we have some more Alexander positives. This gif is a little longer to show one of his pre-snap habits. Alexander likes to prowl a bit before the snap and appears to be analyzing the offensive alignment. It’s not uncommon for him to help line guys up and bark information after his short recon sessions. He’s done his homework here and times the snap well. A decent spin move, and a lethal Jerry Hughes coming in like a rocket opposite Alexander, take Max Garcia (76) by surprise and Trevor Siemian is in immediate trouble. Garcia almost gets enough of Alexander to prevent the sack but the wily veteran is able to log his second sack of the season.

Further thoughts

The team officially lists Lorenzo Alexander as a linebacker. Pro Football Reference insists he’s a defensive tackle on his player page yet sorts him into the defensive back/linebacker hybrid category for some stats. If you catch the right play, you’d swear he was a defensive end. As we saw above, he’s used all over the place. Alexander has become a bit of a jack-of-all-trades. In any one role, it’s easy to ask for an upgrade. With a player who can be adequate to good (to surprisingly good with the right cast around him) in a multitude of positions, it can be much harder to cut ties.

As noted above, there are certain things coaches should hesitate to ask of him. A defensive tackle role is clearly a bad idea. However, he looks fine in any linebacker spot, and can be used as an end on either side of the field. This versatility results primarily from his on field intelligence and awareness. Alexander doesn’t have the physical tools to make up for a mistake or overwhelm anyone with speed or power.

Lorenzo is also a “process” guy through and through. His motor is clear to see on every snap and his on-field behavior suggests he doesn’t skimp on preparation during the week. Further evidence of his “play through the whistle attitude” is seen by his forced fumble numbers. He racked up three in each of his years with Buffalo. In 2017, this was good for fourth-best in the league from the linebacker position. Off the field, Alexander is an eloquent team representative and a positive locker room presence. The current front office staff have placed these qualities at a premium and they cannot be overstated for Alexander.

Decision Time

The vision for the 2018 defensive scheme and roster will probably decide Lorenzo Alexander’s fate with the Buffalo Bills. A scheme that values more rigidly defined linebacker roles can probably find a pure LB upgrade over Alexander without too much trouble. Conversely, a scheme that emphasizes pre-snap changes and misdirection will place higher value on versatile players. Finding an upgrade in this case won’t be quite as simple and the Bills could elect to focus on other needs first.

There are a few things working in Alexander’s favor on this particular team if 2017 was any indication. McDermott and Frazier loved to rotate players on the defensive side, with most of the front seven struggling to break 70% playing time. This allows the team to try to dictate match-ups they like, which means they can limit Alexander’s exposure to unfavorable situations. Similarly, Alexander’s ability to line up in multiple spots means he has high value as a backup for a larger segment of players.

Alexander’s age did not appear to be a major concern, arguably having his best games later in the season. This was in spite of high snap counts on special teams piling onto his defensive role(s). With Alexander’s ability still similar to that of his breakout 2016 campaign, the addition of a stalwart defensive lineman or two could lead to a second career resurgence for Alexander.

From a talent perspective, Alexander has plenty of tools to continue to be a solid, albeit unspectacular, playmaker. Versatility should increase his value from “could retain” to “should retain” and that’s before adding his value to the team culture. However, fans shouldn’t get their hearts set on an Alexander return. Upgrades will likely be available sometime during the offseason and Alexander could find himself on the wrong end of a linebacker overhaul.

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