The Buffalo Bills have plenty of depth along the defensive line, and head coach Sean McDermott and defensive coordinator/assistant head coach Leslie Frazier aren’t afraid to use it. The Bills rarely allow defensive linemen to exceed 60% of the team’s defensive snap total, choosing to deploy a rotation of fresh players.
Now, in some ways, this is a good thing, as it theoretically allows for Buffalo to have an advantage late in games when their players are more rested than the offensive linemen on the other side of the line of scrimmage. However, this also means that Buffalo will sometimes put inferior players out there in big scenarios, because the team’s backups are not as talented as the starting group. Another issue arises when it’s tough to tell exactly what depth pieces are the ones who deserve more snaps, as sometimes it seems like Buffalo has more average guys than it does game changers along the defensive line.
In today’s edition of “90 players in 90 days,” we focus on one of the young players up front for the Bills—a third-year man who needs to show improvement in order to earn more snaps.
Name: A.J. Epenesa
Height/Weight: 6’6” 260 lbs
Age: 23 (24 on 9/15/2022)
Experience/Draft: 3; selected in the second round (No. 54 overall) of the 2020 NFL Draft by Buffalo
Acquired: Second-round draft choice
Financial situation (per Spotrac): Epenesa’s four-year rookie contract is worth a total of $5,877,299. That includes $2,715,550 in guarantees. In the 2022 season, his third professional year, Epenesa carries a cap hit of $1,602,900 if he makes the team, and a dead-cap number of $917,200 if he is released or traded.
2021 Recap: Early on in the season, it looked like Epenesa had put it together, as he exploded out of the gate as a pass rusher. In Week 2 against the Miami Dolphins, Epenesa had nine quarterback pressures and a quarterback hit (a clean shot on Tua Tagovailoa that knocked the QB from the game). While he didn’t record a sack on the afternoon, he was clearly a menace in Buffalo’s 35-0 romp. The rest of the season, however, didn’t go so well, as Epenesa finished with just 14 pressures for the season. He had nine QB hits, 1.5 sacks, 14 tackles, and one pass knockdown in 14 games. He only played 330 defensive snaps, but that was up from 291 during his rookie year. He was DE4 in the rotation in terms of his snap percentage, trailing Greg Rousseau, Mario Addison, and Jerry Hughes in terms of overall snaps.
Positional outlook: With Hughes and Addison gone, Epenesa has to contend with Rousseau, Boogie Basham, and Shaq Lawson for snaps, as well as future Hall of Fame pass rusher Von Miller. Kinglsey Jonathan and Mike Love are the other defensive ends on the roster.
2022 Offseason: Epenesa is healthy and participating in OTAs.
2022 Season outlook: Epenesa has been a bit disappointing overall in his two seasons, flashing some potential in limited snaps but ultimately not doing enough to warrant any sort of great faith in his ability to take the next step. If Rousseau and Miller are the expected one-two punch at the top of the rotation, that means Epenesa, Lawson, and Basham are fighting for the reserve snaps in the rotation, and one of them might not even make the team. Basham is my pick for a breakout defensive player this year, so I think Epenesa will have to fend off our old friend Lawson in the latter’s return to Buffalo for snaps. As a bit of a “tweener,” Epenesa has been unable to find a comfortable role at this point in his career. He’ll need to show big improvement in order to justify more snaps.