Now that the NFL Draft has concluded and all selected players have a new home, it’s time to take a closer look at who will be in a Buffalo Bills uniform next season, starting with A.J. Epenesa.
The Buffalo Bills didn’t have a first round pick but that didn’t stop them from getting a first round talent as A.J. Epenesa slide down the boards, all the way down to 54. While at Iowa, A.J. Epenesa shot up draft boards due to his play on the field. Standing at 6’5″, 275 pounds, Epenesa was not known as the fastest athlete on the field but was one of the strongest.
This was proven during his time at the NFL Combine where he ran a 5.04 40 yard dash time but powered though 17 reps of 225lbs. Though his dash time had impacted his draft position as he fell to the second round, there is no issue that this lack of prolonged speed with effect him coming off the line. In fact, he is quite explosive off the line as shown during a game against foe turned Bills’ teammate, Josh Allen when he was at the University of Wyoming.
With Wyoming facing a 3rd and 28 from their own 40-yard line, Epenesa, on his right side of the defensive line, jumps off the line. After being left unattended with no offensive slide or efforts by the running back to slow him down, Epenesa is left with a free hit on Allen.
This play stands out to me for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I like how Epenesa didn’t go for the big hit. Allen has earned a reputation as a quarterback who is more elusive than people give him credit for. And because of that, the way that Epenesa wrapped up Allen, gives him no chance to escape his clutch or dodge a monstrous hit. This essentially ended the play immediately and forced Wyoming to punt, giving the ball right back to Iowa.
Secondly, Epenesa pays no attention to the option-play that was called. Once the ball is snapped, the running back crosses Allen’s face which gives him the option to hand the ball off to keep it. While this is happening, Epenesa is paying no attention to the back and is instead watching the ball all while making strides towards Allen so he can make a play no matter who the ball ends up with. As Allen pulls the ball in, he is met almost instantly by Epenesa who flies in for the sack.
This play speakers volumes of the speed that Epenesa has off the line, which is really all you need as an edge player. In the amount of time it took Allen to read the gaps in the defense, Epenesa sealed the edge which busted the play which rendered the result it did. In addition, it shows that Epenesa is one of those players who needs to be blocked. The beauty of drawing a blocker on Epenesa on every play is that it opens more opportunities for blitz packages from the safety or linebackers. As Epensa draws the initial attention, in theory, this would provide Tremaine Edmunds, Matt Milano and the Bills secondary chances to get to the backfield.
Against the University of Wisconsin, Epenesa shows what he can do when he is faced with a blocker.
On a 3rd and four from the Badgers 39-yard line, Epenesa springs off the line and is met by 2018 Rimington-Pace Big Ten Offensive Lineman of the Year and now Miami Dolphin, Michael Deiter.
Once Epenesa is engaged with Deiter, he uses his arms, coupled with remaining lower than Deiter to back him up to the point where he no longer has balance. At that point, Epenesa uses a “rip and swim” move to remove Deiter from the play and is left with a free shot on the quarterback. When he does make contact, again he wraps up and drives the quarterback into the turf, leaving no chance for him to scramble. This type of play reinforces everything we already knew about Epenesa.
When thinking about how this type of play would work into the Buffalo Bills defense, knowing that Epenesa can create havoc in the backfield by himself means that the rest of the defense will be able to focus on their job. Couple with again, some designed blitz packages and the opposition won’t be able to establish run or have enough time to pass with Epenesa breathing down their neck.
During the OutBack Bowl, Epenesa also showed when he can do in the speed rush game against Mississippi State.
As soon as the ball is snapped, Epenesa appears to already know what play is coming. He pounces off the line. This time though, he doesn’t engage with the offensive tackle. Instead, he swats the tackle’s hands away, dips his shoulder down and runs around him to the quarterback. It is at this point where Epenesa can easily bring down the quarterback for a sack, but instead, he goes for the ball. As he comes from the quarterback’s blind side, he chops down on the quarterback’s arm, dislodging the ball and falls on it to gain possession for Iowa.
This play in particular shows how well he will fit into the Buffalo Bills defense. Be it that he can play both as power and a speed rusher, Epenesa will fit into multiple schemes that Buffalo draws up. He is able to play inside due to the strength showed against Wisconsin but his speed against Mississippi State is what will make him successful at the next level.
Throughout his collegiate career, not only was Epenesa able to make plays on the defensive side of the ball but on special teams too, as this was evident against Illinois. In a game where he had already registered a touchdown off a scoop-and-score, giving the Hawkeyes the lead, Epenesa also blocked a punt early in the second quarter.
With the Fighting Illini backed up on their own 34-yard line in a punting formation, Epenesa explodes off the line, beats his man and dives in front of the ball to block it. His efforts do not stop there as after connecting with the ball, he turns upfield and makes an impact block to secure the ball for Iowa and puts his offense in a great position to score.
Though it is yet to be determined if Epenesa will be a central piece in the Buffalo Bills’ special teams unit, but if given the chance, especially in field goal situations, Epenesa could use that sudden speed and strength to really make a difference in a game.
As Buffalo looks to reinforce the physical persona that they had so many years ago, the addition of Epenesa will do exactly that. With all multitude of ways that Epenesa can create plays on the field, there is no doubt that he will be a star on the Bills defense this upcoming season.