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How defensive end A.J. Epenesa can win NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year

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Hint: It involves lots of sacks

San Diego County Credit Union Holiday Bowl - USC v Iowa Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

The NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year (ROTY) award is typically given to a linebacker. Over the last 20 seasons, 12 of the winners have played linebacker, with only two cornerbacks, two defensive tackles, and four defensive ends winning the award otherwise.

If A.J. Epenesa, the Buffalo Bills’ second-round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, wants to become just the third player in franchise history (after Jim Haslett in 1979 and Shane Conlan in 1987, both of whom were linebackers) to win the award, there’s one clear way to accomplish the feat.

Five of the last six defensive lineman to win the award made an immediate impact as a pass rusher in their rookie season. Nick Bosa had nine sacks as a rookie last year with the San Francisco 49ers on his way to winning the award. His older brother, Joey Bosa, had 10.5 sacks with the San Diego Chargers in 2016, one year prior to the team’s move to Los Angeles. Defensive tackle Aaron Donald had nine sacks as a rookie in 2014 with the St. Louis Rams, two years prior to their move to Los Angeles, when he won the award. Ndamukong Suh had ten sacks as a member of the Detroit Lions in 2010 when he won the award, and Julius Peppers had 12 sacks for the Carolina Panthers during his Defensive ROTY-winning season in 2002.

Only defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson managed to win the award as a defensive lineman without making much of an impact as a pass rusher, as he notched 3.5 sacks en route to winning the award in 2013 with the New York Jets. However, Richardson had 78 total tackles and 12 tackles for loss that year, incredible numbers for a 3-4 defensive end.

So, what does any of that have to do with Epenesa, and how does it point to the possibility that he’ll win the award? One of Epenesa’s best traits is his versatility, meaning that he’ll have the ability to play both defensive end and defensive tackle perhaps as early as this year. While head coach Sean McDermott has acknowledged the difficulty in having a young player learn multiple positions, it’s clear that he views Epenesa as someone who can move all around the defensive line.

McDermott’s ideal scenario for Epenesa has the rookie playing in a backup role, but that backup role could allow the young man to shine through in some scenarios to earn his counting stats. If the Bills use Epenesa primarily as a defensive tackle in pass-rush situations, for example, on a line containing Mario Addison, Jerry Hughes, and Trent Murphy or Ed Oliver, it’s quite likely that Epenesa will be the man most likely to face a one-on-one block. The 6’6”, 280-lb behemoth will have plenty of room to go to work if that’s the case.

Much of Epenesa’s chance at winning the award will be dictated by snap share. If he is held out by a returning veteran (Murphy) or another young returning player (Darryl Johnson Jr.), then it will be difficult for him to play enough even if he’s bouncing between the end and tackle position. But if he manages to play around 40% of the snaps, which isn’t unreasonable given his positional versatility and the prevalence of passing situations in the modern NFL, then Epenesa has a real opportunity to disrupt his way to an NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year nod.