(ALLEN PARK) - What has been rumored for weeks turned into reality yesterday when Stephen Alexander stepped onto the practice field in Allen Park as a Detroit Lion.
Alexander, 6-foot-4, 250-pounds, is expected to provide a boost at one of Detroit weakest positions, tight end.
Last year, undrafted free agent Casey FitzSimmons was able to claim the starting position for part of the season due in part to injury and lack of production from holdover Mikhael Ricks, who himself was a Pro Bowl alternate two seasons ago.
The six-year veteran from Oklahoma has 104 career receptions as a member of the both the Washington Redskins and most recently the San Diego Chargers. However he missed nearly the entire 2003 season (playing in just three contests) due to a groin injury.
Lions head coach Steve Mariucci says he believes that Alexander is still young enough, and talented enough, to still make a difference.
"When healthy he's been a Pro Bowl tight end," Mariucci said of Alexander. "He's athletic and quick [and has] fast twitch muscle fibers. He's got it. We had him in individual routes versus air and a little seven-on-seven today. I didn't want him wrestling around with defensive ends and linebackers, none of that sumo stuff. I just want to see how he feels tomorrow. After the guys leave on Thursday he's going to keep meeting with coaches on film and keep learning this offense. The only time he's had it (the West Coast offense) was in the Pro Bowl, so it's new to him."
The main concern about Alexander throughout his career has been his health. After establishing himself as a starter and a pro bowl performer in Washington, he appeared in just seven of sixteen games due to injury in 2001. He rebounded in 2002, his first year in San Diego, but last season the bottom dropped out. Historically, when he is 100% he's has performed at a high level. He blamed his release from the Chargers this offseason, at least in part, on a failure to diagnose exactly what was wrong with him health- wise.
"In this business, anything happens," said Alexander. "Unfortunately I had a rough year with an injury that we couldn't get diagnosed the right way in the beginning. It took a little while, but I finally got some good advice. I'm healthy, I feel great. I think this is definitely a new beginning for me and I am excited about it."
Alexander said the problem was the same injury that befell Lions defensive end Kalimba Edwards and hampered his effectiveness for basically two seasons.
"It felt like a groin pull. It was kind of a chronic pain, it never really went away. Our staff decided to do a muscle surgery, so I had the surgery and got no relief. I was basically out for five or six weeks from the initial surgery. That was just a huge setback. Things never got better so I went and saw a specialist and finally got diagnosed the right way. I had to have another surgery and I missed a lot more time. Trying to have two surgeries in the course of a season is pretty tough to come back from."
So what exactly is it?
"It is called a sports hernia," said Alexander. "It is a new diagnosis from what I here. It doesn't always show up on a MRI and different tests. It is not like the old fashioned hernia where there is a protrusion in the muscle wall, it is hard to diagnose. Finally, I went to L.A. and met with a guy who deals with the (L.A.) Lakers and (Sacramento) Kings. He's dealt with a couple of people, including Shaquille O'Neal. He diagnosed me and the rest is history and I feel great."
Coach Mariucci said that having Alexander aboard as a receiving threat gives the team more flexibility.
"When you've got that guy who can run and be a pass-receiving sort of tight end then you don't have to go to your three-wide receiver and four-wide receiver package as often. When you leave him in there you've always got the threat of the run, too. He can stretch the field pretty well. He reads coverages pretty well and is quick in and out of breaks. The more weapons obviously you can have on offense, the less [the defense] can concentrate on taking a certain part of it away."
Alexander says he settled on Detroit after noticing the young talent Detroit was assembling around quarterback Joey Harrington.
"We had several teams calling, but I wasn't interested in just playing somewhere. I wanted it to be the right fit for me to come in and make an impact. I think this team is definitely one that is on the rise. There is a lot of young talent, like I alluded to earlier. I am excited about that. I think Coach Mariucci is a great coach. I talked to guys who have played for him in San Francisco and they all loved him. I just felt like this was a great fit for me to come in and help out where I can."
So what opportunities does he see for himself in the Lions West Coast offense this season?
"Watching it on TV, you never know that it is - the West Coast offense. The West Coast offense is a lot of crossing routes, zone beaters. I think a guy who has experience, who can read coverages, [who] knows what the defense is trying to accomplish with all their fronts and coverages and different personal groupings and find their open holes is key. I think I've been around long enough that I can do so. I am excited about going out and catching a lot of balls this year."
Alexander Enjoys First Day as a Lion
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