The Buffalo Bills selected A.J. Epenesa with the 54th overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. Here’s what Stephen White had to say about Epenesa ahead of the draft.
I would imagine opinions on Iowa defensive end A.J. Epenesa are going to vary wildly. The reason, quite frankly, is because there doesn’t appear to be anything all that “special” about him at first glance.
I don’t mean to sound harsh with that statement, but it’s the truth. He has good size at 6’4 and a listed weight of 280 pounds, but he isn’t the biggest or strongest guy you’ve ever seen. He has a decent get off, but nothing to write home about. His lateral quickness was fine, but I didn’t watch his tape and come away thinking he’d be breaking any short shuttle records at the combine.
In fact, when I look at his combine performance overall, he put up the kind of numbers I would expect from someone who possessed just above-average athleticism relative to his fellow prospects.
But, the more I watched his tape, the more plays I kept seeing him make. Then, I started tallying up all the damage he’d done in four games I watched: four sacks, 10 pressures, seven other hits on the quarterback, eight other one-on-one pass rush wins, and one pass knocked down at the line of scrimmage.
At that point, it was clear to me Epenesa is one of those prospects who you have to dig a little deeper on to really recognize their value on the next level.
What Epenesa does well: Swiper move
I will admit it did take me a little longer than usual to figure Epenesa out, but then it finally came to me when I changed the way I approached him as a player. Usually, I try to focus on individual traits or moves a defensive lineman uses to win on the field, and extrapolate whether those things will also work for him in the NFL. But with Epenesa, it turns out you have to look at his pass-rushing ability as a complete package.
Epenesa’s best edge move around the corner is his patented swiper move. He has really mastered the details of that move and can seemingly pull it out at any moment. His timing on tape with it was great, too. As soon as offensive linemen shot their hands at him, Epenesa used his swiper so violently that he was almost always able to swat those hands away before they could touch him.
He also finished those moves with a rip, which helped him to turn a tighter corner than he normally would have with just his athletic ability.
Those swiper moves were easily the flashiest part of Epenesa’s game. Just about every offensive lineman he faced had to have been on alert for that move, but they still caught hell when Epenesa was really humming.
There is one problem with the swiper move, however. The success of that move is intrinsically tied to whether or not an offensive lineman actually shoots his punch at Epenesa. If he does, then Epenesa is likely going to able to swat the lineman’s outstretched hands away.
While there is still a shortage of quality offensive tackles in the NFL, Epenesa is sure to go against some who know how to switch up when they shoot their punch and will be able to throw off his swiper move. There will even be a few who understand how to keep their hands back completely when they see him going for his swiper move, and instead just try to bear hug the pass rusher after he swats air.
But that’s where Epenesa’s second-best pass rush move comes into play.
What Epenesa does well: Long-arm move and arm-over
In addition to that swiper move, Epenesa has a nice array of power rushes, and his long-arm move in particular is one of the best you will see from a college prospect. That’s important because once he gets to the NFL where tackles tend to be a little more stingy with their punch, Epenesa will need a Plan B.
It doesn’t get much better than countering your swiper move with a long arm.
If he can continue to switch things up like that, I see no reason why Epenesa won’t be even more successful as a pass rusher in the pros.
The more I thought about it, the more sense this made to me: being able to use his power and his swiper move to keep an offensive tackle off balance could help Epenesa turn into a guy who is damn near unblockable three years down the road. I was even more convinced after I factored in the quick two-step arm-overs inside he was able to win with as a counter move, too.
Those three facets of his pass-rushing plan working together will eventually make life hell for any offensive tackle assigned to block him.
What Epenesa does OK: Defend the run
I believe with Epenesa’s size, he could easily pack on another 10 pounds or so and carry it well, so playing him inside full-time could be viable option if he comes out of the gate slow as an edge rusher. At the very least, being an interior pass rusher could be a way he gets on the field early if he doesn’t earn a starting role right away.
I don’t have a lot to say about Epenesa as a run defender, but not because I think he’s bad at it. I feel like he is a guy who can hold the point at the line of scrimmage and not get driven off the ball.
He showed good technique coming off and using his hands well to try to control the blockers, something aided by his long arms that measured over 34 inches at the combine. That’s why his 17 bench press reps are not the same as a guy who is built like a Tyrannosaurus rex. He is definitely plenty strong enough to at least be a decent run defender in the NFL.
At the same time, I only credited him with four tackles aside from those sacks in four games. I wouldn’t be expecting him to make a ton of them in the NFL. But, just like sacks, tackles don’t always tell the tale about how well a guy plays the run.
As far as dropping into coverage, Epenesa did do a little of that, and he was at least OK at it in the games I watched. I don’t think it’s a major selling point for him, however, aside from maybe using him as a spy inside from time to time. But with the speed this new generation of quarterbacks seems to have, I’m not sure how well he would match up with them in that role.
Where Epenesa can improve: Playing both sides
Now that I have established he has first-round talent, I can also point out some valid concerns about Epenesa’s game.
My biggest concern in projecting how Epenesa will do in the NFL is I only got to see him play on the right side of the defensive line. He did show some versatility by kicking inside as a three-technique pass rusher in definite passing situations quite a bit, but even then, he was always on the right side. It seems like there had to be a reason behind it, because I would have assumed at least once in four games Epenesa would’ve found a favorable matchup on the left side, at least on passing downs.
We don’t talk about this a lot, but there are pass rushers who feel a lot more comfortable on one side than the other. I know this because I was one of them until a few years into my NFL career. I had played almost exclusively on the right side at defensive end in college, so playing on left side at first felt like trying to sign my name left-handed.
Eventually I, like a lot of guys in the same situation, did get more comfortable playing on the other side, mostly because I didn’t have a choice if I wanted to stay in the league. Which is to say unless there is a physical issue preventing Epenesa from playing on the left — like the situation with another former Hawkeye defensive end, Adrian Clayborn — Epenesa should get to that comfort level eventually. That is especially true if he is drafted high and expected to play right away.
Epenesa’s NFL future: Underrated but productive
To sum it up, I definitely believe Epenesa is worth a first-round pick, even if he isn’t the best athlete testing-wise. He has legit pass-rush moves and a plan that will work on the next level as long as he continues to improve. If he goes in the first round, it will likely be because the team that took him largely ignored the testing stuff and focused on the film, which I personally would encourage.
I don’t think he’s a finished product anyway, but his floor as a prospect is just too good to ignore.
With the way he plays, I can see Epenesa starting off slowly until he gets a feel for the quicker speed of the game in the NFL. However, a few years down the road, I can also see him being a double-digit sack guy in the right system. That will be especially true if he is comfortable playing on the left side already and won’t have to adjust to that in the league.
I will note, again, that he has excellent potential as an interior pass rusher.
If a team needs a guy to come in and be a “savior” for their defensive line right away, I’d probably advise against taking Epenesa. But if there is a team with some talent up front and is just looking to add to it, then I think most could do a lot worse than drafting Epenesa this year.
But I do think there will be enough conflict between where different teams see his value that he could drop to late in the first round, or out of the first round altogether.
Always remember, it’s not where you start, but where you finish. Barring injury, I believe Epenesa is going to be a hell of a player no matter where he is ultimately drafted. At the same time, he may be one of those guys who is perpetually underrated because he makes a lot of plays without being that flashy.
That’s OK, though — flash doesn’t win games, production does. And Epenesa should have plenty of the latter by the time his career is all said and done.
For the purposes of this breakdown, I watched Epenesa play against Iowa State, Michigan, Purdue, and Minnesota.