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90 Buffalo Bills players in 90 days: DE A.J. Epenesa

Now entering his fourth year, Buffalo’s top draft choice in 2020 still has a lot to prove

NFL: Preseason-Indianapolis Colts at Buffalo Bills Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

The Buffalo Bills have poured myriad resources into their defensive line throughout the last few years. Whether in the form of cap dollars or draft choices, general manager Brandon Beane has prioritized finding players who can impact opposing quarterbacks.

The positive side to that tireless quest for perfection up front is that Buffalo has built a diverse stable of talent in the defensive end department. The negative side is that, at some point, the team has to decide which players can stay and which ones have to go. Choosing correctly isn’t an exact science, but the choices the team makes could have a tremendous impact on this season and beyond.

In today’s edition of “90 players in 90 days,” we profile one of the team’s younger defensive ends — a fourth-year man whose career trajectory seems to be pointing in the right direction after struggling out of the gate.

Name: A.J. Epenesa

Number: 57

Position: DE

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

College: Iowa

Acquired: Second-round pick

Financial situation (per Spotrac): Epenesa enters the final year of his four-year rookie contract. For this year, his cap hit is $1,870,050. If Buffalo releases or trades him prior to Week 1, they’d carry a dead-cap number of $458,600 for the season.

2022 Recap: Epenesa had easily his best professional season, as he notched career-highs in sacks (6.5), tackles for loss (7), quarterback hits (10), pass knockdowns (5), forced fumbles (2), fumble recoveries (1), and total tackles (16). He appeared on 375 defensive snaps, or 38% of the team’s total amount, which was right in line with his snap share from 2021. In that season, he appeared on 330 snaps, or 37% of the team’s total. Epenesa also started two games last year, his first starts since his rookie season. In the playoffs, Epenesa was far less effective, making one tackle in his 64 combined snaps. In terms of snap share at his position, Epenesa slotted in as DE5 in the rotation.

Positional outlook: Epenesa is one of nine true edge rushers on the team’s current roster. Von Miller remains on PUP, but the other healthy players are Shane Ray, Shaq Lawson, Boogie Basham, Leonard Floyd, Kameron Cline, Greg Rousseau, and Kingsley Jonathan.

2023 Offseason: Epenesa has, by all accounts, had a great camp. He started Buffalo’s preseason opener against the Indianapolis Colts, playing on 16 of the team’s defensive snaps, which came out to 24% of the total number for the game.

2023 Season outlook: On a per-snap basis, Epenesa was one of the more effective players on Buffalo’s defense last season. Thus far in camp and the preseason, that trend seems to be continuing. That bodes well both for the team and for Epenesa, who would surely like to have a big year prior to the expiration of his rookie contract. For the Bills, the roster crunch along the defensive line is a great problem to have, as they legitimately have six edge players and five defensive tackles who deserve to make the roster. If we look at the edge specifically here, those players are Miller, Rousseau, Floyd, Epenesa, Lawson, and Basham. Especially if Miller begins the year on PUP, it’s possible that the team keeps the remaining five players; however, once he returns, they probably won’t keep six there. Just looking at the cost associated with moving on from the edge players, it makes sense for the team to release or trade either Epenesa or Basham, as removing either player from the roster would result in a dead-cap number of less than $1 million. Would they move on from a draft pick in order to keep a veteran like Lawson, though, who could also be released prior to the start of the season for a low dead-cap number? That’s the part that’s intriguing to me, and it’s also the part that makes this tough to predict. In the case of Epenesa, I think his spot is safe. I also think that he could have a big year rotating in as one of the top-four pass rushers on what could be a scary front for Buffalo.