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Opinion: A.J. Epenesa starts the year buried on the Buffalo Bills’ depth chart

The top 2020 draft pick might not see time on Sunday.

The Buffalo Bills used their first selection in the 2020 NFL Draft on Iowa defensive end A.J. Epenesa. While it was a second-round pick and not a first, Epenesa was expected to come in and compete with Trent Murphy for the starting spot opposite Jerry Hughes. That clearly didn’t happen.

In the depth chart released Wednesday by the Buffalo Bills, Epenesa wasn’t the starter or even the second-string left defensive end. He was third behind 2019 seventh-round pick Darryl Johnson. And it’s not an issue of making the rookie earn it; Zack Moss and Gabriel Davis are both the primary backups at their respective positions.

Epenesa didn’t wow reporters during the modified training camp in 2020 and apparently didn’t impress the coaching staff either. A good showing by the rookie might have made Murphy expendable enough where the Bills could cut the veteran and save more than $7 million in cap space during a two-year stretch where space will be at a premium. Instead it was Murphy who was steady, solidifying his spot while Johnson played his way into the backup role.

I’m not going to bury a kid who hasn’t even played an NFL snap yet, but it’s safe to question if Epenesa is even going to dress for Sunday’s Week 1 game against the New York Jets. Four defensive ends are ahead of him on the depth chart (with Jerry Hughes and Mario Addison on the other side) and they have some positional flexibility from DT Quinton Jefferson who can move out to defensive end. Second-round picks in this league are expected to contribute right away in most cases and Buffalo’s may not even see the field in his first NFL game.

Early returns on the second-round pick are less than encouraging. The fact is, it would be somewhat of an upset if Epenesa developed into a legitimate threat from the defensive end spot and we’re seeing that play out in real time. Buffalo spent heavily on the defensive line this offseason but the Epenesa pick was supposed to be a cost-control measure. If you have a guy on his rookie contract beat out high-priced vets, it’s a big win.

Epenesa has a long way to go to make an impact on this Bills team. It’s true this offseason was incredibly difficult to transition, but general manager Brandon Beane would probably like to see some return on that investment sooner rather than later.