Iowa Football

A.J. Epenesa begins NFL career in Buffalo

The Iowa defensive end did have to wait a bit to hear his name in the second round, but this NFL thing is now launched

Iowa Hawkeyes defensive end A.J. Epenesa (94) waves to his family after the 2019 Holiday Bowl at SDCCU Stadium in San Di
Iowa Hawkeyes defensive end A.J. Epenesa (94) waves to his family after the 2019 Holiday Bowl at SDCCU Stadium in San Diego, Calif., on Saturday, Dec. 28, 2019. Iowa beat the USC Trojans 49-24. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

Thursday night wasn’t great for A.J. Epenesa. He had first-round expectations. When the first round came and went without his name being called, it did probably feel like everyone forgot his birthday.

Friday night was better, but Epenesa did have to wait, probably 20 to 25 picks longer than most mock drafts had him placed. Some draft analysts, including NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah, did have the Glen Carbon, Ill., native falling out of the first round.

But not the second. For a while, it looked like that might happen, too, but the birthday cake finally happened with the Buffalo Bills taking Epenesa with pick No. 54 in the second round.

The Bills picked Epenesa and now it finally feels like he might be done with combine. There’s no question Epenesa’s first-round projections were punctured by his performance in Indianapolis. The biggest bite was a 5.04-second 40-yard dash. Defensive linemen don’t cover kicks, but the 40 still cut deep and likely knocked him out of the first round. Most times, if a player puts up a number at the combine that he doesn’t like, he has a chance to massage that a little bit with pro day at his school. Iowa, and most if not all other schools, canceled its pro day, instead sending teams video of workouts. Epenesa never really had a chance to wash off the combine.

With Epenesa going at No. 54, he’s in line for a $5.8 million contract and a $1.8 million signing bonus, according to Spotrac.com.

“Epenesa, he’s dropped a bit, obviously,” ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper said on a recent conference call. “When you talk about 40 time that usually conveys to a pass rusher in the NFL. The great thing about Epenesa is you can kick him inside on third down. He has an inside presence, he has versatility. He had great production against pretty good offensive tackles late in the year.”

Epenesa’s role with the Hawkeyes was premium pass rusher. The 6-5, 275-pounder had eight of his 11.5 sacks in 2019 in the final five games of the season, including a strip sack at Wisconsin, 2.5 sacks vs. No. 10 Minnesota and another 2.5 sacks against USC offensive tackle Austin Jackson, who was selected in the first round.

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With the fact that he was passed over in the first round, apparently the NFL has questions about how quick and explosive he can be as a pass rusher. So, where else on the D-line can Epenesa fit?

Epenesa talked about this openly and honestly at the combine.

“They just kind of ask me what I prefer playing and what I enjoy playing, but they also tell me what things they think I can play as well and that includes playing the 5 (defensive end lined up on the offensive tackle’s outside shoulder) or the inside rushing from the 3-technique, things like that. I want to be able to be versatile and play multiple positions and to be better at all those positions.”

Epenesa might be able to add weight and play inside. Now as a second rounder, he might be given some time to find a comfort level wherever he lands on the D-line.

“I never played in the inside with significant reps, just in pass rush situations, but I feel like the more reps I get the better I can be,” Epenesa said.

After Epenesa was selected, ESPN’s Booger McFarland said, “I think he’s more of a left defensive end, someone you can play over the tight end and then you can kick him down inside on passing downs. Iowa played him at right end. The hips aren’t as fluid as you’d like for a speed rusher coming from the right side. But I do like his position versatility. He can come inside and play defensive tackle and play over the tight end. He’ll play for 10 years. He might not be a double-digit sack guy, but he’ll be a very, very productive defensive end in the NFL.”

Comments: (319) 398-8256; marc.morehouse@thegazette.com

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