NAME: A. J. Epenesa
POSITION: Defensive End
SCHOOL: University of Iowa
A.J. Epenesa is a highly productive edge player who put up excellent numbers despite only starting for one year in Iowa City. Epenesa came off the bench behind more veteran ends in 2018, but he still led the Big Ten in sacks as a true sophomore. His junior season saw him start for the first time, increase his sack numbers, and be named an All-American. He is a likely first-round pick, but he may slide to the early second, where the Colts would be lying in wait at 34.
At nearly 280 pounds, Epenesa’s game is not built on speed around the edge. He dominates at the point of attack with long arms and a powerful punch. Instead of beating a tackle to the corner, Epenesa instead gets his hand into the blocker’s chest, drives him back, and makes a move to escape. The obvious benefit to his style of play is that it is equally effective against the run or the pass. In other words: tackles can’t do their jobs if they’re being pushed backward.
As is often the case in line play, a first move is only as good as its counter. If Epenesa only ever “long-armed” opposing blockers, they would soon learn to corral him more easily. However, he brings an arsenal of moves to his craft that will allow him to see the field early as a NFL pass-rusher. Beyond his impressive arm length, Epenesa shows skill in swiping tackles’ hands off of him, bull rushing players into a quarterback’s lap, and violently ripping off of blocks to finish.
— Hawkeye Football (@HawkeyeFootball) June 22, 2019
With such eye-popping numbers and the strength to boot, Epenesa seems unlikely to fall out of the first round. If he does, though, it will be due to his relative lack of speed. Make no mistake, this man is not Dwight Freeney 2.0. Even on plays that he “wins” (i.e. tackles, sacks, fumble recoveries), Epenesa is sometimes slow off the ball. He does not have the burst to win with speed, and his nonstop motor is a necessity. Without it, he would be just another slow, strong lineman. Whoever drafts him will need to understand what he brings to the table and live with him having heavy legs.
— Iowa On BTN (@IowaOnBTN) November 17, 2018
With Jabaal Sheard still unsigned, the Colts will presumably look for his replacement on draft weekend. Epenesa is the ideal player to fill Sheard’s role opposite Justin Houston. Those two would bring exceptional power to the edges on early downs but can also win pass rush reps with tenacity and savvy. On obvious passing downs, Epenesa can slide inside to allow Kemoko Turay and Ben Banogu to rush from the outside. Against a guard, Epenesa’s slow get-off matters a lot less. Imagine a quarterback stepping up in the pocket to evade Houston, Turay, or Banogu, only to find DeForest Buckner and Epenesa pushing his guards into him. Good luck.