- Associated Press - Wednesday, August 5, 2015

SPARTANBURG, S.C. (AP) - Frank Alexander wouldn’t have faulted the Carolina Panthers had they released him last year after testing positive four times for marijuana and being suspended twice by the NFL.

Alexander knows he messed up having to sit out 14 games in 2014.

He also knows he was on the verge of throwing away his NFL career before checking into a rehab center.

The Panthers, however, never gave up on the fourth-year defensive end.

This year Alexander is out to repay coach Ron Rivera and the organization for sticking by him. He has set his sights on getting 10 sacks this season and at least two tackles for losses per game. He’s eager to help the Panthers win an unprecedented third straight NFC South title rather than be a spectator on the sideline.

But first he wants the Panthers to know he won’t let them down.

“When you put yourself in this position, you got to gain the trust back,” Alexander said. “When you mess up, you got to gain the trust back.”

Alexander has been working hard to do just that.

The 25-year-old has moved up to first-team right defensive end. The team is hoping he can fill the void created by the departure of Greg Hardy, who signed with the Cowboys as a free agent following off-the-field issues of his own.

“I feel like I can be as good as I set my mind to do,” Alexander said.

Rivera believes that. He also believes Alexander when he says he’s done with drugs.

In Rivera’s eyes, Alexander is a “solid young man who made a mistake,” and someone who is doing the right things to make amends.

“We aren’t going to throw guys to the side that are solid young men that have shown us they are committed to trying to make things right,” Rivera said.

Still, Rivera has called this a “make or break” season for Alexander, who is in the final year of his rookie contract with Carolina.

The 6-foot-4, 270-pound Alexander has a great combination of size, speed and power, but has only 3 1-2 sacks in three seasons. He only played in one game last season because of the suspensions.

The low point came last September when he couldn’t travel with the team to Tampa Bay for the season opener.

“I was sitting at the house watching the game and cheering them on, but on the inside I was hurting,” Alexander said. “There wasn’t any injury, it was just a decision I made. Now, I’m not only affected by this decision, but it affects my family.”

It bothered him that his two young daughters were questioned by friends and classmates about his drug issues. He vowed to change his lifestyle - as much for them as for himself.

Instead of lighting up after practice to relax and unwind, Alexander often turns on a video game.

“You can’t do the same thing and expect different results,” Alexander said. “You know you’re at a point where you have to grow up and make choices that will better yourself and your family.”

Alexander says a prayer of thanks for the secondary opportunity before he steps on the field. It’s an opportunity, he knows, he may never get again if he messes up.

He’s drug-tested frequently by the league, sometimes up to five times per month at random places and times. Another positive test would lead to a mandatory one-year suspension.

“Most guys don’t get the (second chance) that I have, so I’m thankful for that,” Alexander said.

Rivera said he talks with Alexander every day, taking a personal interest in what is happening in his life. He tries to show Alexander that he believes in him, that’s he’s counting on him and he there’s to support him.

“I’m proud that he is doing the things that he should do and has stayed on the straight and narrow,” Rivera said. “He knows he has to do that. This is his opportunity. He has a family he has to take care of and I think that is part of growing up and understanding the responsibility.”

NOTES: Linebacker Shaq Thompson, the team’s first-round draft pick, was held out of practice after tweaking his hamstring. … Rivera said defensive tackle Kawann Short (back) is expected back to work in the few days, but Star Lotulelei (foot) will miss a couple of weeks. … Rivera said cornerback Chris Houston decided to retire after reinjuring his toe. … The Panthers signed cornerback T.J. Heath and defensive tackle Kenny Horsley and released punter Matt Wile.


AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP_NFL

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