This is what fans could realistically expect from defensive end A.J. Epenesa’s first year with the Buffalo Bills.
Coming out of Iowa, a football program that has been churning out elite-level NFL talent for the better part of four consecutive years now, Epenesa was a prolific pass rusher and one of the reasons the Buffalo Bills were willing to select him in the second round. Accumulating not only eye-catching numbers but numerous accolades, he turns his attention from the FBS to the NFL.
Coming into a Buffalo Bills program now that has prided themselves on being a defense-focused team, Epenesa will fit right into the focus that Buffalo has. With Jerry Hughes occupying the other side of the line, it is to be expected that Epenesa will beat out Trent Murphy for the other starting defensive end position. With him commencing on his rookie season, the question this article hopes to answer is “What can we really expect of Epenesa in 2020?”
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To answer that, we are going to take a look at past trends and predict how and if they would repeat themselves at the NFL level.
During his time at Iowa, Epenesa led the Big Ten in sacks his Junior season with 10.5 and followed up with 11.5 in his Senior season. With that information, we know that Epenesa is an extreme threat in pass rush, which is an area that Buffalo needed to address in the offseason.
Transitioning from the Big Ten to the NFL, Epenesa now is facing off against grown men who are not all going to be the same age as him. Some more experienced lineman has spent the better part of a decade in the NFL and going up against a new-explosive rookie is nothing new to them.
Where Epenesa differs from the faces they may have lineup against in the past is that Epenesa is flexible. Standing at 6’5″ and 277lbs, Epenesa has the quickness to come off the edge but also has the hand and skillset to play inside at the defensive tackle position.
Reminiscent of how the Houston Texans utilize J.J. Watt in different packages, Epenesa could easily slide over and occupy the DT position in goal-line or short-yardage positions. The perk of this is that it allows Epenesa to be closer to the ball, the ball carrier and even the quarterback. This brings a lot to Leslie Frazier’s defense as he predominantly runs a zone scheme. Having a threat like Epenesa will bring a world of disturbance to any quarterback trying to go through their reads while keeping in mind that there is a rusher hell-bent on bringing him down.
What can we realistically expect from A.J. Epenesa in 2020?
Now looking at what we can realistically expect from Epenesa numbers-wise, I see him recording in the ballpark of nine sacks. Though this number pales in comparison compared to those of Shaquil Barrett (NFL-leading 19.5) Chandler Jones(19) and Cameron Jordan (15.5), it is a realistic number we can hope to see out of Epenesa.
Last season, Buffalo’s top pass rusher was Jordan Phillips. Phillips who left to the Arizona Cardinals in the offseason excelled in the Buffalo Bills’ system. Recording 9.5 sacks in the 2019 season, it is expected that Epenesa is to be a level above Phillips. To his credit, Phillips had an incredible year and was certainly a highlight of the Bills defense, but Epenesa brings much more to the table than Phillips and will be an impact from the first snap of the season.
Epenesa has the skillset to be an All-Pro caliber player. He showed at the collegiate level that he was one of the primer pass-rushers in the game. Though he eventually fell to the second round, a slot where no expert thought he would ever fall to, he brings first-round potential that Buffalo will use to cement themselves as a top-tier defense in 2020 while recording nine sacks along the way.