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90 players in 90 days: Defensive end A.J. Epenesa

The second-year man is looking for an expanded role this year

Wild Card Round - Indianapolis Colts v Buffalo Bills Photo by Bryan Bennett/Getty Images

The Buffalo Bills have a deep, versatile defensive edge group that consists of veterans and younger players alike. Most of those players fit a similar profile in terms of length, as head coach Sean McDermott and general manager Brandon Beane seem to prefer longer edge-setting types to smaller players who use speed and angles to wreak havoc on the quarterback.

As a result, many of Buffalo’s edge players could also double as interior defensive linemen, especially in pass rushing situations. In today’s installment of “90 players in 90 days,” we profile one such player—a second-year edge rusher with the ability to kick inside.

Name: A.J. Epenesa

Number: 57

Position: DE

Height/Weight: 6’6” 260 lbs

Age: 22 (23 on 9/15/2021)

Experience/Draft: 2; selected by Buffalo in the second round (No. 54 overall) of the 2020 NFL Draft

College: Iowa

Acquired: Second-round draft choice

Financial situation (per Spotrac): Epenesa enters the second year of his four-year rookie deal, which is worth a total of $5,877,299. For the 2021 season, Epenesa carries a salary cap hit of $1,335,750, and the Bills are on the hook for a dead-cap charge of $2,252,950 if he’s released or traded.

2020 Recap: Epenesa’s rookie year started poorly, as he was a healthy scratch Week 1. That’s never what you want to see from a team’s top draft choice, but he eventually worked his way into the defensive line rotation. His usage varied through Buffalo’s next eight games, as he played on as few as four defensive snaps and as many as 24 defensive snaps over that time. Beginning with Buffalo’s victory over the Los Angeles Chargers, Epenesa was a consistent contributor on at least one-third of the team’s snaps overall. For the year, Epenesa notched 14 tackles, three tackles for loss, four quarterback hits, one sack, and one pass breakup.

Positional outlook: Epenesa is still likely to begin the year as a backup to veterans Jerry Hughes and Mario Addison. Free-agent addition Efe Obada was one of the league’s most efficient pass rushers last season, so he should end up as DE3 in the rotation. That leaves Epenesa battling with rookies Gregory Rousseau and Boogie Basham for snaps as the fourth edge rusher. Bryan Cox Jr., Darryl Johnson, and Mike Love round out the positional group.

2021 Offseason: Epenesa is healthy and he attended OTAs.

2021 Season outlook: Thanks to the aforementioned versatility of Epenesa and many of his fellow edge rushers (Rousseau and Basham, in particular), I see the Bills going heavy on the defensive ends and light on the defensive tackles when making their final roster. Epenesa is going to make the squad, but the question is whether he’ll realize his potential or continue to make a minimal impact in his second year. He’s more a high-motor guy (or a “lunch-pail” type, if you want some bad flashbacks to the drought-era Bills of yesteryear) than he is an athletic specimen, so he needs to improve his functional strength in order to realize his potential at this level. As a hybrid DE/DT, Epenesa may have a better shot at making more impact plays this year. I expect that he’ll play around 35-40 percent of the overall defensive snaps, and even more if Buffalo plays with a lead and forces teams to abandon the running game. With two more high draft choices behind him, this is a big year for Epenesa to cement his place in the pecking order moving forward.