After sitting out the entire first night of the 2020 NFL Draft, the Buffalo Bills then proceeded to wait even longer. With most of round two unfolded as well they finally selected former Iowa defensive end A.J. Epenesa. If you’re like me, after waiting that long you’re itching to get as much information as possible. So let’s hit some tape.
The first thing that stood out when watching A.J. Epenesa was a set of violent hands. His opponent is a touch off-kilter so take the result with a grain of salt. On the other side of the ledger, Epenesa didn’t have a windup here so there’s likely more power in that punch if he needs it.
Sometimes you find a gem in an otherwise bad result. Due to getting caught up in the crossfire, Epenesa doesn’t end up where he wants. However, he uses a move I personally love to see, which is pulling an opponent toward you to get them off-balance and behind you. This wasn’t the only instance of this move either, but it did have the best look at his hands.
Epenesa comes across as an intelligent player on the field and one way this shows up is play awareness. Keeping his eyes on the prize, he still manages some hand fighting. The leap into the passing lane is also well-timed. Knowing when you can’t reach the quarterback in time is an important skill and Epenesa had a good Plan B here.
And here’s the payoff. Even though he faces next to zero resistance, Epenesa reads the play and knows he needs to disrupt the ball in the air. Which he does.
There are two main takeaways for this clip. The first is that A.J Epenesa has experience in the interior of the line and as we should all know by now head coach Sean McDermott and general manager Brandon Beane love versatility. In addition to lining up as a tackle, Epenesa was used on stunts to the inside creating another layer of the all important “v” word. The second takeaway is that Epenesa’s left hand seems to be very precisely located. It’s hard to tell for sure, but it appears he’s using it to pin his opponent’s right arm to prevent establishing a good block.
Luckily we have other examples of precision hand placement. The right hand swats exactly where you want it, driving the left tackle’s outside hand down and away to allow Epenesa to get the edge. The strike is also quite forceful if you closely watch the resulting balance issues the tackle experiences.
One more precision hand placement. The swim move is pretty good with the right arm but nothing special. It’s the left hand that punches at the tackle’s tricep that makes this move effective. By striking in this way it helps rotate the opponent’s body away while preventing the arm from engaging.
We’ll talk about burst and reaction time in the summary a bit more, but on this play Epenesa is the first player moving, which helps him set up this move. For right now I’d like to talk about leverage. In this exact moment Epenesa does quite well and we see the fruits of that labor. It’s important to know he CAN get underneath an opponent and win the leverage game because it’s one area where I’d like to see more consistency. A lot of blocks start in a little higher stance than you care to see.
On this tackle for a loss, Epenesa sees the play the entire time and sheds the block early enough to make the play. See above. Inconsistent leverage make this an inconsistent skill as well.
A.J. Epenesa is an interesting pickup. He makes the hard stuff look easy such as hand fighting and timed swats. And he makes the easy stuff look hard at times, such as “low man wins.” Overall, though, there’s a lot of reason to like Epenesa. If I had to wager, it’ll be easier to coach up leverage skills than hand fighting.
I referenced football I.Q. and burst separately above so let’s tie up those loose ends together. When it comes to burst and reaction time off the snap, my initial reaction was not enthusiastic. You always want the fastest guy off the ball and at first glance that’s not Epenesa—who is often moving at or around the same time as his teammates.
However, an interesting trend emerged. Where Epenesa’s first quarter or two was nothing special coming off the snap, usually by the fourth quarter he was consistently faster than his teammates like we see in Play 8 above. The most likely explanation is that Epenesa has a knack for learning snap counts and cadences. It would explain how he’s moving before the tackle in Play 8 for instance.
Finally, working mostly from the right side there is some question as to how Buffalo plans to slot in Epenesa. The most likely scenario based on Epenesa’s most recent experience is to be the 33% of snaps behind Jerry Hughes’ 66%. A.J. Epenesa looks to be a solid investment and as fans it should be exciting to see how he slots into a crowded defensive line.