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Opinion: A.J. Epenesa is the youth movement Buffalo Bills needed at edge rusher

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The Bills stood pat and set up the future at edge rusher.

After two days of waiting and more than 50 draft selections, the Buffalo Bills finally called in their pick for Iowa defensive end A.J. Epenesa. The 21-year-old Epenesa gives the Bills a necessary youth movement at defensive end to match with the 32-year-old Jerry Hughes, 33-year-old Mario Addison, and 29-year-old Trent Murphy. He has prototypical defensive end size, was a five-star recruit out of high school, and notched eight forced fumbles, 31 TFLs, and 22 sacks over the past two seasons before entering the draft. The looming question—how do you square his reputation as an all-around athlete with impressive technique against a poor performance at the 2020 NFL Combine?

Epenesa comes from a family of athletes, scored over 1,000 points as a high school basketball player, and won two state discus titles. At 6’5” and 275 lbs, he has perfect length for an edge rusher. He can bull rush the pocket with impressive power, or use an array of hand techniques to swipe free and run to the passer.

That said, is Epenesa bendy enough to reliably turn the corner on an offensive tackle? Or will he be limited to one side of the line, the power rusher opposite a speedier all-around rusher? Epenesa’s 5.04 forty-yard dash was lousy, but the better indicator was with the three cone drill (7.34 seconds, 30th percentile) and short shuttle (4.46 seconds, 37th percentile).

Epenesa’s coming into a perfect development situation, behind a trio of heady veterans and working with an excellent coach in Eric Washington. In year one, you can count on him to rotate, just as Ed Oliver did, providing fresh legs and burst when it’s needed. As a second-round pick, he shouldn’t arrive with the same burden as Buffalo’s second-year defensive tackle, but in a year without a first-round pick, he’ll wear it nonetheless. Three years into his career, Epenesa should be a capable starting defensive end to count on for 6-12 sacks per season. Further refining his pass rush plan is the path to greatness.