When the Buffalo Bills used their first- and second-round draft picks on defensive ends this year, it was not to be interpreted as a sign that they're giving up on 2020 second-round pick A.J. Epenesa already.
On the contrary, Epenesa is not on the clock and his roster spot, barring a spectacular decline from his rookie season, is not in jeopardy.
But the Bills also weren't going to pass on edge rushers they believe can help after Epenesa experienced more downs than ups in his first season coming out Iowa.
Epenesa played 27% of the defensive snaps last season, finishing with just 14 tackles (three for losses) and 1.0 sacks.
That wasn't necessarily discouraging, given the circumstances.
Teams weren't allowed any in-person OTAs because of the coronavirus pandemic, and when they finally were able to assemble in training camp, it was under heavy restrictions that made things particularly difficult for rookies who need as much hands-on tutoring as they can get. The virtual stuff only goes so far.
Then there was the issue with his weight.
At Iowa, Epenesa played in a two-gap system, which means he had to play at around 280 pounds to better be able to toss much heavier offensive tackles to either side to make a play. With the Bills, he was asked to shed weight and forget about two-gapping. The emphasis would be more on quickness and being responsible for just one gap.
Problem was, he overdid it, dropping nearly 40 pounds before realizing that once the season starts, it's difficult to keep weight on. He played most of last season at 245, lighter than optimum.
"It was just a huge transition, coming down from such a heavy weight, to changing my whole style of game," Epenesa told the Buffalo News. "... "Everyone's a hell of a player, everyone's a good football player. And there's no week where you ever think that you've got someone less in front of you. You've always got a great competitor, a great athlete in front of you. So you've got to show up every week to compete."
Adjusting to the level of play in the NFL was more difficult because the extreme weight loss sapped him of strength.
Still, he acquitted himself well in the second half of the season, according to general manager Brandon Beane and coach Sean McDermott. And he made a further impression on his coach by hanging out for most of the offseason to get his body just right.
He went into OTAs weighing 252, with the goal to add around another five pounds and then stay there for the next decade or so.
"He's in a great spot now," McDermott said. "He’s in shape and he’s on track to have himself ready to go for training camp. What I’ve seen to this point is very encouraging."
Added defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier: " He's really benefited from staying here and working out with our strength staff, which is something he couldn't do last offseason because of all the things that were going on. So I'm anxious to see once we get to training camp and if some of the things that we're seeing now will transfer to what we're going to do when we put pads on.
"But, man, he looks really, really good at this point."
Epenesa even showed a nasty side at OTAs last week when he returned an interception to the end zone, then mixed it up with guard Jon Feliciano after the two had words.
The skirmish was seen as a good thing by most, including defensive lineman Harrison Phillips.
"Brothers fight all the time," Phillips said, "but they love each other 100%. So it's just football.
To that end, they're keeping their fingers crossed that Epenesa will show up for training camp next month in the same shape (and frame of mind).
"The key will be once we end this offseason program and guys go away for the summer, what will happen between that time and the time we come back for camp," Frazier said. "And I've already had that conversation with him that he really has to work hard and think about maybe coming back sooner than some of the other guys.
"He's willing to do that."