Written by Greg Boucher
The Buffalo Bills have been in search of a premier pass rusher since the departure of Mario Williams back in 2014 and while they have found some quality production from Jerry Hughes and Lorenzo Alexander over that span there has not been a true edge presence on this roster in quite some time. While Epenesa’s first season in the NFL left many in Bills Mafia feeling less than optimistic, but I am here to warn them that they should not be too quick to judge. Epenesa was a victim of the Covid Protocols in 2020 that drastically altered the normal pre-season activities. He missed valuable developmental reps in rookie mini-camp, during OTA’s and during the Pre-Season which did not hold customary inter squad scrimmages and exhibition games, experience that is pivotal to a young player, especially a pass rusher trying to transition to the speed and physicality of the NFL trenches. Aside from the on-field reps Epenesa missed out on due to the Covid Restrictions he also was prohibited from visiting with teammates outside of the facility, something many young players traditionally do as they look for mentoring and extra tutelage from veterans.
HC Sean McDermott and DC Leslie Frazier seemed content with bringing him a long slowly, giving veterans Jerry Hughes and Mario Addison the bulk of the starter reps and beyond this DL Coach Eric Washington employed a heavy rotation on the line, constantly interchanging the lineup; rolling fresh guys in and out. While this may be a smart way to keep the defensive line fresh, it hurts the development of young players looking to find a rhythm on the field. While Epenesa did not wow coaches or fans with his final stat line (14 Tackles/ 1 Sack) there were some very encouraging reps shown by him this season, many that force me to believe he can be the edge apparent in Buffalo.
Epenesa was a prolific pass rusher at the University of Iowa, where after three seasons he cemented himself as one of the country’s best, posting 26.5 career sacks, 36 TKFL and 9 forced fumbles over that span and at 6’6, 280lbs. he was widely considered one of the top defensive end prospects in the draft. Unfortunately, so much of the evaluation process has to do with off the field combine testing and less to do with actual, on-field production and play. Epenesa disappointed mightily in his combine showing, running an extremely poor 40 time of 5.08 with a 1.78 10-yard split which moved him into more of a defensive tackle category than a premium pass rusher which forced every GM with a pick in the first round to abandon the prospect. This poor showing of speed and athleticism at the combine undoubtedly led to his physical maturation, from the time he tested at the combine in March to his arrival in Bills camp in late July, Epenesa dropped nearly 20lbs. (260lbs.) This drastic drop in weight was surely in the hopes that his new sleeker physique would help his get off and burst. While he certainly seemed more explosive off the ball and bending the edge than he did at his previous weight, he also had to make the adjustment to the natural loss of strength and the ability to anchor the edge like he once did.
Epenesa was a player who needed the extra reps, who needed the mentoring, who needed the extra time in the facility but had to forgo all of that. In the onset of 2020, he was relegated to a back-up role for much of the first half of the season, but as the season went on his snap share increased and with that his effective play did as well. Much of what Epenesa did on the field did not necessarily show up in the stat column, he was able to win his pass rushes, able to bend the edge and pressure the QB enough to disrupt plays, he also showed the ability to set the edge, to take on trap blocks at the point of attack and force runs back inside where help existed. While Epenesa still left some big plays on the field in his rookie year, missing some vital sack opportunities he showed promise and his approach to the game was encouraging.
Improving the pass rush was a clear objective this offseason, as the Bills spent both of their top 2 picks on pass rushers Gregory Rousseau and Boogie Basham in the draft and while both players look to add production to the line up now and in the future Epenesa is still the best of the group going forward and with a “normal” off season he should be poised for a break out season in 2021. By all accounts Epenesa has been working extremely hard improving himself. “He’s in great shape right now, he looks as good as I’ve seen him look. Credit to him for being here, he’s been here most of the offseason… 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.” Head Coach Sean McDermott said of him in a recent interview. Epenesa is already well ahead of where he was heading into last year, he already understands life in the trenches, he has adjusted to the speed and strength of NFL lineman, he has adjusted to his new playing weight and learned to hone his newfound quickness and apply it to his craft. Outside of what Epenesa has done individually, and what he will bring to the table next year he stands to benefit from what others around him can do. The Bills D-Line play should be improved this season, with the much-anticipated return of block eater Star Lotulelei helping to control the line of scrimmage and demanding double teams, those around him should reap the fruits of his labor. With Lotulelei back in the middle, Ed Oliver should see more favorable 1 on 1 match ups which could certainly help flush QBs out of the pocket into the waiting arms of Epenesa and in terms of counterparts Epenesa will have a cast of talented pass rushers he can benefit from, none more than veteran Jerry Hughes. While Hughes has not been the producer he once was he is still capable of disrupting in the backfield and forcing QBs to escape, something he did a lot of last year unfortunately no one was home to cash in. With Epenesa projecting to be a better finisher than he was a year ago, he can find himself running into a handful of sacks next season.
With all of the work he has done, with the natural skills he already possesses, with the experience he now has under his belt and with the improvement of those around him I believe AJ Epenesa will have a breakout year in 2021, I believe he will finish the year with 10-12 sacks, emerging as the best pass rusher on this team going forward.