By Jason Reid
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 3, 2009
Lorenzo Alexander plans to make another move to help the Washington Redskins. After playing a key role on offense, defense and special teams during the team's late run to a playoff berth in 2007, Alexander made his biggest contribution in 2008 as a pass-rush specialist at defensive tackle.
With the loss of versatile defensive lineman Demetric Evans to the San Francisco 49ers in free agency, Alexander will be given the first chance to fill the important tackle-defensive end hybrid position that Evans excelled at last season. Alexander has prepared for the challenge, he said, reporting to minicamp at Redskins Park in the best shape of his career, and he is eager to take another big step.
With his contract expiring after the upcoming season, Alexander, 25, could strengthen his position if he produces as part of a Redskins defensive line that is undergoing a major makeover -- in personnel and scheme -- because of the departure of former Pro Bowl defensive end Jason Taylor and the arrival of two-time all-pro defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth. Alexander has capitalized on every opportunity since he joined the Redskins' practice squad during the 2006 season, and Washington's coaches expect him to seize this one, too.
"They're the same kind of guy," defensive coordinator Greg Blache said of Evans and Alexander. "That's one of the reasons Demetric was expendable, to a degree."
Many in the organization considered Evans to be Washington's most valuable defensive lineman last season, citing his productivity as a run-stuffing end on first and second downs and an effective pass rusher on third downs, when he would move to an interior position. Moreover, Evans's contribution was especially timely because of the failed experiment with Taylor -- a former defensive player of the year the Redskins acquired on the first day of training camp after starting defensive end Phillip Daniels suffered a season-ending knee injury. (Daniels re-signed with the team in March.)
Hobbled by injuries, uncomfortable in Blache's disciplined scheme and unhappy being away from his wife and children, Taylor rejected owner Daniel Snyder's request in March to have a workout clause added to his contract and the team released him. With the second-round pick (No. 44 overall) they received in this year's draft from Washington in exchange for Taylor, the Miami Dolphins selected quarterback Pat White from West Virginia. The Redskins also gave the Dolphins a sixth-round pick in the 2010 draft as part of the trade.
Taylor, whose weight during the season drops to about 240 pounds, was never considered an elite run-stopper, and the successful scheme Blache and his predecessor, Gregg Williams, brought to Washington emphasizes stopping the run. Because of his size and skills, Evans was better suited than Taylor for Blache's approach, players said, and Evans tied Taylor and defensive end Andre Carter for the team lead with four sacks last season. (The Redskins and Buffalo Bills were tied for 28th in the league with only 24.)
Despite Evans's strong season, the Redskins made no attempt to re-sign him because "it was just a decision we had to make cap-wise," Blache said. It was "a decision we had to make personnel-wise and we made it. Demetric is a fine player and he did a lot for the Redskins. But Lorenzo is, very much, a similar person."
The Redskins first took a long look at Alexander in 2007. Because of injuries along the offensive line, then-Coach Joe Gibbs and offensive line coach Joe Bugel tried Alexander at guard. To their surprise, Alexander impressed during practice, especially at pulling in stretch running plays, a staple of the offense, and he appeared in games with the first-team offensive line, at fullback and as a tight end on goal line situations.
Last season, Coach Jim Zorn preferred that Alexander concentrate on defense, where he had two sacks, and Danny Smith, who coaches special teams, turned to Alexander to help on the team's poor kickoff coverage. Alexander views the job for which he is currently competing as "just a natural progression because I've kind of found my niche being versatile, but even that changes from time to time. I like defense first, of course.
"As I fit myself into the offensive scheme, I enjoyed playing it. Getting out there, having an opportunity to score touchdowns, catch a pass or make a nice block, that's great, but I am a defensive guy. The special teams thing, really, just started coming in the second half of last season when I started running down on kickoffs. I really enjoy that, so I've been pressing Danny to get me on more of that. Being versatile helps the team and it helps me. It definitely has helped me stay around. In this league, the more you can do, the better for you, and the more valuable you are as a player. It helps them to know, if a guy goes down, that they have somewhat of a safety valve. Not that I'll play as well as [starting right guard] Randy [Thomas], but in an emergency I can step in and at least get the job done to where [quarterback] Jason [Campbell] can have time to throw the ball and we can run the ball."
Alexander learned a lot from Evans, who was among the most respected players in the locker room for his work ethic and selfless approach. "Just showing up when they need you, making the most of your opportunities, that's what Demetric did," Alexander said. "Having a guy like Jason [Taylor] out, and him stepping up and having big plays in big games, that's what it's about. You only get so many opportunities in this league to make a name for yourself and create that perception. That's really a lot of what the league is about. You can be a great player, but if the right people don't think you can play, then you might not be around for long."
Since joining the Redskins, Alexander, who has a foundation that benefits children, has been actively involved in the team's community relations program. He also is a member of the National Alliance of African American Athletes, whose mission "is to empower African American males through athletics, education and public programs," according to the group's Web site.
"It's great being part of a group that really is all about breaking the idea, those media stereotypes, that we [African American athletes] are all dumb, uneducated and we don't know how to speak well," said Alexander, who is married and has two daughters. "It's just a big network system and we all lean on each other for support."
A three-year starter at defensive tackle for the University of California, where he earned a bachelor's degree in legal studies, Alexander originally signed with the Carolina Panthers as an undrafted free agent in 2005. Released by Carolina in September 2006, he was briefly on the Baltimore Ravens' practice squad before the Redskins signed him to their practice squad in October.
"Being cut early in my career, and not being drafted, has made me see the other side," he said. "All of it has kind of helped me with that whole perception thing and that the NFL really is not for long. Just being able to come here, work hard and show my versatility, now they [the Redskins] have a perception of me like, 'Well, Lorenzo works hard, he can step in and do what you ask him to do. He's dependable.' I think they know they can trust me."
Listed at 6 feet 1 and 300 pounds in last season's Redskins media guide, Alexander said he began minicamp at 275 pounds after changing his offseason workout regimen. Seeking to improve his quickness and agility in anticipation of also playing defensive end, Alexander followed a workout program that tight end Chris Cooley recommended. The result was "the best shape I've been in in a long time," he said. "It's just a real intense metabolic workout that builds upper-body strength. It really helped me cut down my body fat."
In Washington's 4-3 defensive schemes, tackles for the most part have been assigned to occupy blockers in an effort to help linebackers make big plays. Having linemen fill the role of "space eaters" helped Washington to four top-10 finishes defensively in the last five seasons. But that's not how Haynesworth played in becoming one of the league's top defensive players with the Tennessee Titans, and Blache acknowledged on the first day of minicamp that he would have to make some changes to accommodate Haynesworth's unique big-play skills. It appears Washington's defensive linemen will, at least occasionally, have more freedom to operate this season.
"We have to make more key plays," Alexander said. "We made a lot of plays last year, but we didn't make enough let's-get-off-the-field plays in crunch time. A lot of times, teams kept running that rock on us. You've got a guy like Albert in the middle now, and other teams have to pay attention to him.
"It's going to take two, three guys to do that sometimes, especially on third down. With Albert being here now, there's that external type of pressure from the fans and media. They think, 'Okay, they got this guy, now they should be number one automatically.' It really doesn't work like that. We just have to go about our business as usual."