The Buffalo Bills have tried to perfect their pass-rush group now for the duration of the Brandon Beane regime. Any general manager in the modern NFL wants to assemble a strong corps of pass rushers, but Beane has tirelessly tinkered with the positional group in search of a crew that can continue to attack opponents like Patrick Mahomes, Joe Burrow, Trevor Lawrence, Tua Tagovailoa, Justin Herbert, Lamar Jackson, and the myriad other star quarterbacks in the league right now.
The defensive strategy employed by head coach Sean McDermott emphasizes rotation along the defensive line, which often limits the gross sack numbers a player can achieve. While players on other teams are playing 75% of their respective team’s defensive snaps, Buffalo rarely has defensive linemen play much more than 60% of the defensive snaps on a given year. This depresses overall sack numbers for the individual, but the hope is that these fresh sets of defensive linemen are ready to cause havoc in opposing backfields.
In today’s installment of “90 players in 90 days,” we discuss one of Buffalo’s defensive ends — a young player entering a contract year who is looking to build off his career-best third season in the NFL.
Name: A.J. Epenesa
Height/Weight: 6’6”, 260 pounds
Age: 24 (25 on 9/15/2023)
Experience/Draft: 4; selected by Buffalo in the second round (No. 54 overall) of the 2020 NFL Draft
Acquired: Second-round draft choice
Financial situation (per Spotrac): Epenesa enters the final year of his four-year rookie contract, a deal worth $5,877,299 overall. For the 2023 season, Epenesa carries a cap hit of $1,870,050 and a dead-cap charge of $458,600 if he’s released or traded prior to the start of the season.
2022 Recap: Epenesa looked primed to break out early in the season, as he absolutely terrorized the Los Angeles Rams’ offensive line in the season opener. He had 1.5 sacks and four quarterback hits in that game. While the breakout didn’t quite happen, he definitely took a huge leap forward last season, as he showed flashes of dominance with a little more consistency sprinkled in as compared to his first two years in the league. He finished the season with 16 tackles, seven tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks, 10 quarterback hits, two forced fumbles, five pass knockdowns, and a fumble recovery in 15 games (two of which were starts). All of those totals were career highs. He reached those on a career-high number of defensive snaps, as well, but he played on just 375 total snaps — which accounted for 38% of Buffalo’s defensive total overall.
Positional outlook: Epenesa is one of many vying for space along the edge. He’s joined by Von Miller, Leonard Floyd, Boogie Basham, Greg Rousseau, Kingsley Jonathan, Shaq Lawson, Kameron Cline, and Shane Ray.
2023 Offseason: Epenesa is healthy and he has participated in offseason activities to date.
2023 Season outlook: When I look at the defensive end group, there are six players who I see as having a legitimate claim to a roster spot. That’s great, of course, as depth is important, but I struggle to find justification for Buffalo to keep five of them when they’re all healthy, let alone six. My ideal number here would be four players, which could happen when Miller is fully cleared and ready to roll. Buffalo may choose to keep a fifth defensive end just in case, which would sacrifice flexibility at other positions, but would allow them to work Miller back slowly.
That means that the real battle here is at spots four, five, and six on the depth chart. If we look at Miller, Floyd, and Rousseau as being the top dogs, that means that Epenesa, Basham, and Lawson are probably four, five, and six in some order. Lawson is a solid veteran who does more than what his stats would give him credit for in terms of setting an edge and playing consistently. Epenesa and Basham have shown flashes — and they’re still quite young — but while their ceiling may be higher than someone like Lawson, their floor is also quite a bit lower.
I think Epenesa is safe, as his upside as a pass rusher combined with his length make him a better long-term option, so I don’t think he’s going anywhere this year. I’m not sure how keen the coaching staff will be on re-signing him, but if he takes another step forward like he did from year two to year three, he may end up earning himself a big raise come 2024. Young edge rushers don’t come cheap, and one who’s still just scratching the surface of his potential like Epenesa could command a pretty good chunk of coin on the open market. He’ll comfortably slot in as either DE3 or DE4 this year, depending on Miller’s availability, and if he builds off of his strong 2022 season, it will only add depth to what could be an outstanding pass rush in Buffalo this year.