Why the Slide?: A.J. Epenesa

Why the Slide?: A.J. Epenesa, DE, Iowa
By Charlie Campbell, @draftcampbell

Six years ago, we started a series of articles on why certain prospects went undrafted. In that series, I reach out to sources with NFL teams to find out why their organizations passed on drafting a given player, and/or, what were the reasons for other teams to pass on that prospect. We got a lot of positive reader feedback about the series, so we decided to expand in the genre to investigate why some prospects slid in the draft. Four years ago, we started the Why the Slide? series, and this year it is back. Feel free to email me requests for Why the Slide? and Why Undrafted? at [email protected]. I can’t promise to get to all of them, but I will do my best and definitely will respond to the email.

Following his breakout freshman season, many expected Iowa defensive end A.J. Epenesa to be a first-round pick. After recording 4.5 sacks as a freshman, Epenesa was a force for Iowa as a sophomore with 10.5 sacks and as a junior with 11.5 sacks. The strong and tough defensive end decided to skip his senior year, and many thought he would be selected on the opening night of the 2020 NFL Draft. However, he slipped to the second round and was close to the third round before coming off the board.

In speaking to team sources, some had a second-round grade on Epenesa, so they felt him going in the opening frame of Friday night was appropriate. There were even some teams that had Epenesa graded in the third round. They saw some stiffness and a lack of speed for the NFL. Epenesa did not impress teams at the combine, and they were mildly disappointed in his workout. Some 4-3 teams felt that he may not have the quickness or agility to rush the passer in a 4-3 and his best fit would come as a five-technique defensive end in a 3-4.

The Buffalo Bills ended Epenesa’s fall in the second round, which was an excellent landing spot for him. Head coach Sean McDermott is one of the best defensive coaches in the NFL, and Epenesa is a good scheme fit for the Bills’ tough, physical defense. Buffalo added Mario Addison in free agency, but he and Jerry Hughes are aging veterans. Epenesa could back them up for a year or two, but Epenesa will probably be on the field in running situations as he is stronger and stouter in the ground game than those veterans. That rotation would help keep Hughes and Addison fresh to rush the passer on third downs, but Epenesa will get some of those reps as well. So while Epenesa will start out as a rotational backup, he has the opportunity to work himself into being a starter for Buffalo by the end of his rookie contract.

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