2020 NFL Draft: Could Iowa Defensive End A.J. Epenesa Fill the Jaguars' Pass-Rushing Need?
As the 2020 offseason progresses, JaguarReport is going to be taking extended looks of some NFL draft prospects who could theoretically make sense for the Jacksonville Jaguars at some point in April.
In this version, we examine Iowa defensive end A.J. Epenesa, an intriguing defensive lineman who could play multiple roles for a defense. With Calais Campbell traded to the Baltimore Ravens earlier this offseason, does Epenesa make sense for the Jaguars in this year's first-round?
A.J. Epenesa entered the college scene following a high school career that saw him reach massive heights in football, basketball, and track. The five-star recruit played early on for the Hawkeyes, totaling 4.5 sacks, 5.5 tackles for loss, and one forced fumble as a freshman.
Epenesa's production took a big jump in 2018 as the powerful and aggressive defensive end notched 10.5 sacks (most in Big 10), 16.5 tackles for loss (most on the team), and four forced fumbles. Thanks to this fantastic year on the Hawkeyes' front four, Epenesa earned second-team All-Big Ten honors.
As a junior, Epenesa once again turned in a dominant season in the Big 10. In 2019, Epenesa recorded 11.5 sacks, 14 tackles for loss, and four forced fumbles. As a result, the 6-foot-5, 275-pound defensive end earned second-team Associated Press All-American and first-team all-conference honors.
What A.J. Epenesa does well
While most defensive ends win with speed around the edge, A.J. Epenesa is built more in the mold of players like Campbell or Cameron Jordan. He isn't an overly explosive athlete but he does a good job of finding momentum and rolling his weight before he engages with a lineman, and he then uses a vicious blend of technique and power to bully blockers.
Epenesa will brutalize smaller offensive tackles as a pass-rusher at the next level thanks to his heavy hands and ability to convert speed to power off of the snap. His punch can force an offensive tackle off balance on contact, while his length helps him gain seperation in the run and passing game.
As a pass-rushing technician, Epenesa already has a number of tools at his disposal, something you don't see much in defensive ends before they hit the professional level. He has a push/pull move and a stab and swipe that is deadly in close quarters, regardless of if he is on the edge or lined up inside. His hands move in cohesion with his feet, which are quicker in short areas than some may give him credit for, and this enables him to make a lot of plays off of inside counters.
Against the run, Epenesa is an effective edge setter despite not having a ton of range as a tackler. He reads his keys well and rarely loses ground, anchoring against blockers with more effectiveness than many on the edge. He can penetrate a play thanks to his powerful hands and momentum off the snap, but he needs to be attacking forward instead of laterally.
Thanks to his length and power, Epenesa is capable of being moved around the defensive front. He projects as an effective interior rusher on obvious passing situations despite his smaller mass because he has such quick hands and feet in a phone booth. He overpowers tackles and is too quick for guards. When lined up inside, he also has a more linear path to the quarterback, which helps improve his play speed.
What A.J. Epenesa needs to improve at
Where Epenesa has holes in his game isn't exactly an area he can likely change over the course of his career, though there are still certain aspects to his game that can improve over time.
Epenesa is never going to be a player who can routinely beat offensive tackles around the edge. Smaller offensive tackles will have issues with his power, but those with an anchor may be able to handle him sufficiently enough because he just doesn't have the explosion or bend around the edge to threaten the outside much.
One reason Epenesa sometimes has a below-average get off is because of an occasional streak of shooting high off the ball, losing his leverage and momentum. If you ask him to beat an offensive tackle to the edge, chances are he will lose that battle despite having good footwork in tight spaces. It just isn't his game.
Due to his lack of explosion and range, you won't see Epenesa make a ton of plays in space. Because of this, teams would often make him the targeted defender on options at the collegiate level because they knew that he wouldn't be able to overcome the numbers disadvantage to make a play like more athletic defensive ends sometimes do.
If the Jaguars want a third down edge rusher to replace the consistent speed off of the edge that Yannick Ngakoue brings, then Epenesa shouldn't even be on their radar. But if they want a long-term replacement for Campbell who can play the 'big end' role on base downs and slide inside on passing downs, there might not be a better fit than the productive and fiery Iowa lineman.
Epenesa fits in the Jaguars' defensive scheme like a glove, and could be a logical target with either the No. 20 selection, or the No. 42 selection if he slips in the draft due to a middling performance at the NFL Scouting Combine. He won't rack up sacks at defensive end, but he'd set a hard edge, turn plays inside for others to make, penetrate vs. the run, and then wreak havoc vs. interior linemen on third down.
The Jaguars did sign Rodney Gunter as a stopgap this offseason, but Epenesa provides more long-term value thanks to his tools as a pass-rusher. He won't make a lot of plays in space, but neither did Campbell. He can still help a defense despite that, and his traits fit perfectly with what the Jaguars' defense is missing.
His inability to beat offensive tackles with speed will undoubtedly impact his draft stock, but thanks to the value he brings to the other parts of a defense he should be an enticing option for 4-3 and 3-4 defenses alike, even if his pass-rushing production will likely come from the inside