This is the fourth part of a series looking at 10 questions facing the Bills entering training camp, which begins July 25. Today's question: Can they get another strong season out of Lorenzo Alexander?
Some of it is a gift, an ability Lorenzo Alexander has to "endure a lot of ground and pound."
"I've just been blessed to be built that way," he said.
The rest of what keeps Alexander a viable outside linebacker for the Buffalo Bills at 36 can be found inside his brain. As far as he's concerned, it has far more to do with his impressive longevity at one of the more physically demanding positions in a highly physical game.
"I think the biggest asset that I probably have developed is just the concept of never getting out of shape," Alexander told The Buffalo News at the end of last month's mandatory minicamp.
That knack for overcoming all of the challenges that go with playing in the NFL for 12 seasons is why Alexander finds himself getting ready for No. 13. He says that he and his wife are planning for it to be his last, although he won't rule out the remote possibility of changing his mind.
The question is, will Alexander's 13th season be good enough to allow him to continue to back up his tremendous leadership skills with effective on-field contributions? The Bills need both. Linebacker is one of their stronger positions, especially with a pair of budding stars in second-year pro Tremaine Edmunds in the middle and third-year man Matt Milano on the opposite side of Alexander.
But it lacks strong depth. Alexander must be able to do at least as much as he did in 2018, when he helped the Bills rank second in the NFL in yards allowed with a career-best 69 tackles. He also had 6.5 sacks in 16 games, including eight starts, and had a career-best two interceptions.
In short, Alexander has to contribute the way defensive tackle Kyle Williams did last season, which was his 13th and last. The Bills feel fortunate Alexander fills Williams' leadership void.
"He is probably the voice of our defense for our team," defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier told reporters during OTAs. "He was kind of in that role, to a degree, when Kyle was here as well. Now, it’s really thrust upon him to lead us and he’s done a great job at it. He did a great job when Kyle was here as well.
"He’s accepted that role, and I think the players look to him and expect him to be the voice for our defense and he doesn’t shy away from it."
Listening to Alexander talk about the rest of the Bills' linebacker corps is like listening to another coach. He praises the way Edmunds and Milano approach the game. He thinks they complement each other "very well." He talks about the strides Edmunds has taken with leadership at the tender age of 20, and Milano with communication on the field.
"And guys are just confident in themselves," Alexander said. “And I like where the (other) young guys are at. They have the right mentality and approach to try to learn how to be a professional in this league. Obviously, being a rookie is always hard, but they’re working through a lot of things, asking the right questions.
"Then, kind of our core special-teamers, I love as well. Julian (Stanford) is starting to become a leader. I think Deon (Lacey) is doing the same thing when it comes to special teams. They understand the importance of that role, because it’s allowed them to be in the league since they’re not starters as linebackers. But at the same time, I think both those guys, when given the opportunities last year, showed out well and they’ve taken another step as far as understanding the defense. So it’s going to be an interesting competition because, obviously, we can’t keep everybody. I think that is a sign of a good team, because there’s going to be guys that we cut in our room as well as some other rooms that probably can go and be a significant piece on another team."
One reason Alexander's teammates seek his wisdom is because they see a living, breathing example of someone who figured out a long time ago that sticking around the NFL is largely a case of mind over matter.
Alexander can remember the exact moment he came to that realization. It was while watching a documentary on Jerry Rice in the late stages of a receiving career that led to his having a bronze bust in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
"He was talking about why he still was so good and how he got an edge," Alexander said. "And I kind of just adopted that, really, and I just made that part of my routine early on. As soon as the season was over, I was still doing things, whether it was cycling, Pilates, light impact pool workouts, whatever it may have been just so I never got out of shape and just maintained it.
"Obviously, the older you get and you get out of shape, it gets hard to get back in shape because you have to put so much energy into just maybe even losing a couple of pounds. I think just regular people understand that. So on the elite level, when you do that, you allow a young guy possibly to pass you by because there’s ground you can’t make up. I just like to stay at a certain level and keep my baseline high and then just tweak certain things to my game each and every single year."
Still, those younger linebackers on the Bills' roster see something else when they look at Alexander: someone who is 14 or more years older than they are taking up a roster spot.
To them, he's the guy they believe they should be able to unseat because their youth presumably makes them faster and simply better athletes. Alexander fully understands the thinking. After all, he once was their age.
Understanding it is one thing. Fretting over it is another, and Alexander insists there is no fretting about those gunning for his place on the team.
“I did early in my career, when I was a young guy trying to get on (a roster) and counting numbers and figuring it out," he said. "You just drive yourself crazy and you end up taking away from (your performance), playing tight. I’ve learned not to worry about it so much. And obviously the older you get, the more production you have, the more of a value a team holds into you, it’s obviously easier to do that. I developed that mindset a long time ago ... I said, ‘Hey, man, I’m just going to go out here and perform. Work out, put myself in the best light possible and just grind. And if it works, it works and if it doesn’t, it doesn’t. I can’t deal with all that stress that I’m putting on myself.'”
Alexander doesn't fear competition.
"I've just embraced it, because it's the nature of the NFL," he said. "And I think, just in life in general, I tend not to worry about things that I can't control or just the natural way things work. As long as I'm putting my best foot forward and have prepared and I'm competing at a high level and give myself the best shot, I mean, I can live with that."
There is plenty of work behind that preparation and Alexander has enlisted plenty of help to make sure he's doing everything possible to enhance his chances for success. While playing for the Washington Redskins from 2006-2012, he began working with Virginia-based personal trainer Chris Gorres.
Although Alexander and his wife and children alternate living in Western New York and Phoenix, Alexander continues to keep in regular contact with Gorres, who gives the linebacker strength workouts tailored to his needs.
"He really understands my body, what I need in order to transition, whatever exercise, whatever movement, prep we do to the field and where my weaknesses are, what my strengths are," Alexander said. "He understands the game of football, because he played as well."
For speed, Alexander works with Phoenix-based speed-training consultant Thomas Weatherspoon. "He's really allowing me to maintain and, in some cases, probably even accelerate a little bit," Alexander said. "Because I’m just slowing down the process of aging."
Alexander is meticulous about his year-round diet. He's conscious of his intake of fat and calories six days a week. He has one "cheat day," usually on the weekends when hanging out with his children. During the season, it's after he plays a game, "because I've just put in a lot of work and my body needs some of that stuff that a cheat meal provides."
Alexander's go-to "cheat" meals are a stack of pancakes and/or waffles, with scrambled eggs on the side. "That's my jam," he said. "I eat that any time of the day."
There are always food temptations. Holidays and birthdays present all sorts of threats to Alexander's regimen of healthy eating.
He said he doesn't struggle much to fend them off.
"For me it's, what would you rather do?" Alexander said. "Would you rather play football at a high level? Or would you rather eat the way you want to eat when you have holidays or birthdays and what comes up like that. It's not that I don't want to eat it. I just try to make the best decision for that (football) future.
"I have an advantage because I'm getting paid to do something, so there's an actual value that I can see that it would impact if I'm not disciplined. I'll have a conversation with myself. I say, 'I want to be in this (weight) range. If I eat this, that's going to mess it up.'"