AJ Epenesa has been a fast rising name since his breakout 2018 campaign, which saw him eclipse 10 sacks. He followed up a spectacular 2018 season with an even stronger 2019. The 6’6 280 pounder was one of the defensive evaluations I was most looking forward to. Epenesa is a prospect who I need to see perform well athletically between his combine and pro day, but he is a fantastic football player.
Strengths: Epenesa is a very large man. His length allows him to straight arm tackles, giving him the space to disengage from blockers and make a play. He does a great job of keeping himself from being trapped. As the best player on the Iowa’s front, he was the focus of plenty of double teams. This allowed him to develop an effective rip move, to change his pad level and split the double team. His strength is apparent in his bullrush, it is not uncommon for him to drive his man directly into the quarterback’s lap. As a run defender, he is excellent. He does a good job containing the edge and filling gaps when necessary. Epenesa’s football IQ is apparent, Iowa moved him all over the front 7. The ability to play as a 4-3 end, 3-4 end, 3Tech, and 3-4 OLB is no small feat. There are snaps he is asked to drop into coverage and he shows an understanding of zone responsibility. Simply put, he is an extremely versatile and talented football player, who is able to use his football IQ to put himself in great positions to make plays.
Weaknesses: My biggest concern with AJ Epenesa is his overall athleticism. He doesn’t show great bend around the edge as he has a natural inclination to play a little high. This also limits his strength more often than is ideal. His lateral agility leaves a lot to be desired. He simply gets outran in too many situations. I would very much like to see him be more active with getting his hands up in attempts to bat down passes, has shown this in glimpses. The production as a pass rusher is largely due to just being more talented than the people across from him. His pass rush arsenal is limited to the bullrush and and a cross chop, needs to develop counter moves and approach pass rushing with a plan.
Final Thoughts: AJ Epenesa is an incredibly talented football player who I think is just scratching the surface of his potential. He may not be the flashiest EDGE in this draft, but it my opinion he will be one of the better ones. That said, he needs to show he’s athletic enough to succeed at the next level as more than a run stuffing defensive end. He will likely find the most success as the Big End in a 4-3 base defense, though he certainly has good reps at 3T as well. A role similar to that of Calais Campbell in the Jacksonville Jaguars scheme would be a great fit.