One of the top pass rushers in the 2020 NFL Draft is on the Atlanta Falcons radar. Here is a breakdown of Iowa’s A.J. Epenesa.
It feels as if it’s deja vu all over again. Going back to the offseason prior to the 2019 NFL Draft, the Falcons were in need of some pass rushing help after posting 37 sacks, tied for 22nd in the NFL. Once again, we’ve come full circle. The Falcons continuously find themselves in need of some pass rushing juice.
Former 2015 eighth overall pick Vic Beasley led the team in sacks this past season with eight, yet the team was 29th in the NFL this past season with just 27 sacks. Beasley is quite possibly heading towards free agency and there are only three defensive ends under contract on the team in 2020.
Translation: The Falcons need to address the position this offseason, and improvement is necessary. Of course, the upcoming NFL Draft is a great spot to seek such improvements. Today, we will turn the spotlight on one of the best defenders in the entire 2020 NFL Draft.
A.J. Epenesa Scouting Report
Weight: 280 pounds
Career stats: 37 career games, 101 total tackles, 36 tackles for loss, 26.5 sacks, nine forced fumbles
Games watched: 2018 vs. Mississippi State, 2018 vs. Nebraska, 2019 vs. Minnesota, 2019 vs. Nebraska, 2019 vs. Michigan
Epenesa will enter the 2020 NFL Draft as one of the top pass rushers in the entire draft. If not for Ohio State’s Chase Young, Epenesa would stand alone at the top amongst all pass rushers in this class.
A broad shouldered defender, Epenesa comes equipped with a favorable NFL frame. Epenesa is not the most versatile defensive lineman you would ever come across but at times, Epenesa has been seen rushing the passer from the 3-Tech spot and able to beat opposing guards with ease. One of Epenesa’s best traits is his capability to effectively club away the hands of offensive tackles immediately out of his stance. When Epenesa must counter and disengage from blockers, he has been seen rag-dolling linemen out of his way.
Epenesa has plenty of power in his arsenal and can be a consistent anchor and not playing on his heels. As a run defender, Epenesa is more than capable of setting the edge and not allowing easy run lanes on the boundary. There were a number of times during the 2019 season that he was game planned out of the run game as offenses ran away from him. He will utilize his suitable length to rake away the football if unable to get to the quarterback. Over the last five games of the 2019 season, he totaled eight sacks, by far the best five game stretch of his collegiate career.
There are very few glaring weaknesses in Epenesa’s overall game and he departs Iowa as a near-finished product at this point. Due to his average get off and overall athleticism, Epenesa will not likely turn heads with a 3-cone drill or a swift 10-yard split in the 40-yard dash. Only posting 3.5 sacks in the first eight games of the 2019 season was slightly alarming in a season where he was expected to have a monster year. His awareness/play diagnosis is average at times and shows a tendency to react slightly late. He also has a very good motor but will not be much use when it comes to chasing plays down the field due to a lack of speed and acceleration.
Even with just three seasons at Iowa, Epenesa is one of the safest picks in the entire NFL Draft. It’s easy to notice that Epenesa plays with discipline and toughness thanks to the tutelage of Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz. Thanks to a polished skill set and technique, Epenesa can give the Falcons a desperately needed punch in the pass rushing phase.
Although he is viewed a rival, New Orleans Saints defensive end Cam Jordan is the best comparison to make when it comes to finding someone that models Epenesa’s game. Epenesa is one of those prospects that can also be a leader in the locker room and one that can set a standard for a defense. It is not a guarantee that Epenesa will be available once the Falcons are on the clock as he is viewed as a top-12 prospect by many. If he is, however, this should be a no-brainer for a team that needs to considerably upgrade its ability to get after the quarterback.