Yahoo Sports' top 2020 NFL draft prospects, No. 29: Iowa EDGE A.J. Epenesa


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29. Iowa EDGE A.J. Epenesa

6-foot-5, 275 pounds 

Yahoo Sports draft grade: 6.00 — possible immediate starter

TL;DR scouting report: Power-based rusher whose concerning NFL scouting combine testing numbers cloud his projection.

The skinny: A 5-star Rivals recruit (top 30 nationally), Epenesa chose the Hawkeyes over dozens of other suitors, joining the team his father, Epenesa (aka “Eppy”), lettered for in 1997.

In 2018, Epenesa became a major contributor, being named to the second-team all-Big Ten by the conference’s coaches, even though he didn’t start a single game. Epenesa racked up team bests in tackles for loss (16.5) and sacks (10.5), adding 37 tackles, four pass break-ups, eight QB pressures, four forced fumbles and a blocked punt.

As a junior in 2019, Epenesa started all 13 games, recording 49 tackles (14.5 for loss), 11.5 sacks and four forced fumbles, being named second-team AP All-America and first-team all-conference.

Epenesa, who turns 22 in September, declared early for the 2020 NFL draft. He participated in all of the scouting combine’s workouts and positional testing.

Upside: Outstanding size and production. Put up impressive 26.5 sacks and nine forced fumbles in three years despite starting only 13 career games. Found ways to be productive in 2017 and 2018 with limited snaps (less than 50 percent both seasons). Ideal frame — great length (81 1/4-inch wingspan) and good lower-body strength. 

Possesses innate feel for rushing. Combination of nice flexibility (for a big man) and power gives him a different way to manufacture rush lanes. Diversifies his attack. Long arms help shut down passing lanes and bat down passes. Wins with powerful hands to create pushback and create leverage advantage. Good bull-rushing instincts, plus nice rip move (especially inside).

Tenacious, downhill force player and strong at the point of attack. Heavy, skilled hands — delivers a nice pop and uses them with savvy. Long reach aids rush tactics. Check out this power move right down Main Street to collapse the pocket and take the shortest route to the QB:

Watch Epenesa walk the tackle back into the QB and deflect the pass.

And this one looks similar, getting the Penn State tackle to open too wide and finishes with a QB pile driver:

This is how you rush the passer with force.

Master of keeping contain and not rushing with too wide an arc. Back-side ninja who times up strip sacks beautifully.

Consistently disruptive, even when not registering sacks, TFLs and strips. Torques his body and shifts weight well — pushes off his front foot and drives past guards’ outside hip or tackles’ inside hip. Solid run defender with potential to get better.

Big performances on big stages — named Holiday Bowl Defensive MVP with 2.5 sacks, forced fumble vs. USC in 2019 (facing possible first-round OT Austin Jackson); logged sack, fumble, pass defended in Outback Bowl 2018. Used on a fake punt in 2017 against Michigan State and has solid special-teams experience. Could be used as kick blocker.

Downside: Athletic testing at combine was concerning — 5.04-second 40-yard dash and 1.81-second 10-yard split among the lowest times for a typical edge player. Bench press number (17 reps, tied for fewest among the big men) disappointing.

Lacks ideal explosiveness, twitch and burst. Could stand to develop upper-body strength, especially for a player who needs to win with power. Not going to win often with edge speed — even with a good get-off, just isn’t twitchy enough. Most often reaches the pocket against QBs who hold onto the ball too long.

Instincts in run game need refinement. Check out this play against Wisconsin — Epenesa (No. 94, end man on the left side of your screen) doesn’t appear to react quickly enough (is No. 74 Austin Schulte calling out the run gap pre-snap?) and pinballs off his own man as Badgers RB Jonathan Taylor scoots by for a nice gain:

Epenesa is still honing his run-defense skill.

Will try to run straight through tackles instead of  working “half a man.” Technique looks excellent at times, lacking at others. Won’t win as many war-of-attrition battles against elite OT athletes. Bit of a tweener body — has evaluators asking where he fits best. Might have to bulk up and play more inside (or as a 5-technique) or slim down slightly and improve burst in an NFL conditioning program for a year or two.

Limited versatility. Predominantly lined up as a right end — only handful of snaps from left side. Can kick inside on passing downs but only asked to do it in limited situations. Only stood up or dropped into short zones very selectively. 

Best-suited destination: Epenesa’s evaluation relies on a team focusing on what he does well. It appears he can play end in a 4-3 or 3-4 front and possibly be used inside as a subpackage rusher, and his athletic limitations are likely overblown.

Among the teams that could be interested in Epenesa’s services: the New England Patriots, New York Giants, Miami Dolphins, Seattle Seahawks, Detroit Lions, Tennessee Titans, Minnesota Vikings, Houston Texans, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Baltimore Ravens, Los Angeles Rams, Arizona Cardinals and Buffalo Bills.

Did you know: The son of a football player (Eppy) and volleyball/softball player (mother Stephanie, who played both at Iowa Wesleyan), Epenesa was a standout on the gridiron in high school, where he earned All-America recognition his final three years and led his team to a 40-6 record over four varsity seasons.

He also was tremendous in track and basketball. Epenesa won back-to-back Illinois state discus titles in high school and set a state record with a throw of 205 feet, 11 inches as a junior.

In basketball, Epenesa also lettered for four straight years and averaged a double-double — scoring and rebounding — as a senior.

They said it: “A.J. Epenesa is quick getting off the ball, but he’s more of a straight-line guy. He can set the edge, but you can put him in situations where he has to make decisions and move side to side. The most impressive thing about him is his physical appearance.” 

— college coach, to Yahoo’s Pete Thamel in October

Player comp: Former Falcons pass rusher Patrick Kerney

Expected draft range: Could crack the top 20. If not he likely will be off the board before the 40th pick.

Previous prospect rankings: Nos. 100-91 | 90-81 | 80-71 | 70-66 | 65-61 | 60-56 | 55-51 | 50. DT Justin Madubuike | 49. CB Damon Arnette | 48. OT Ezra Cleveland | 47. WR KJ Hamler | 46. CB A.J. Terrell | 45. RB Cam Akers | 44. DL Ross Blacklock | 43. OT Josh Jones | 42. DT Jordan Elliott | 41. C Cesar Ruiz | 40. S Kyle Dugger | 39. EDGE Terrell Lewis | 38. WR Laviska Shenault Jr. | 37. S Grant Delpit | 36. Jonathan Taylor | 35. WR Brandon Aiyuk | 34. EDGE Zack Baun | 33. EDGE Yetur Gross-Matos | 32. CB Jeff Gladney | 31. QB Jordan Love | 30. CB Trevon Diggs | 29. EDGE A.J. Epenesa | 28. RB JK Dobbins | 27. WR Justin Jefferson | 26. WR Tee Higgins | 25. S Xavier McKinney | 24. WR Jalen Reagor | 23. CB Kristian Fulton | 22. RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire | 21. WR Denzel Mims | 20. LB Kenneth Murray | 19. RB D’Andre Swift | 18. QB Justin Herbert | 17. LB Patrick Queen | 16. WR Henry Ruggs III | 15. EDGE K’Lavon Chaisson | 14. WR Jerry Jeudy | 13. OT Mekhi Becton | 12. DT Javon Kinlaw | 11. OT Andrew Thomas | 10. OT Tristan Wirfs | 9. WR CeeDee Lamb | 8. OT Jedrick Wills Jr. | 7. CB CJ Henderson | 6. LB-S Isaiah Simmons | 5. DT Derrick Brown | 4. QB Tua Tagovailoa | 3. CB Jeffrey Okudah | 2. QB Joe Burrow | 1. Chase Young

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