Heading into the draft season, many analysts saw Iowa DE A.J. Epenesa as a top-10 draft pick. I, myself, believed the only way the Ravens could draft Epenesa would be if they trade up to get the former Hawkeye’s star pass-rusher. However, after a sluggish combine performance, the Ravens might not even have to make any moves to pick Epenesa, they could very well stay put and pick him at #28.
Epenesa is more than a pass-rusher. His sheer power and ability to dominate opposing offensive linemen should translate in the NFL. For the past two seasons, Epenesa has been one of the best defensive ends in all of the Big 10 as well as the entire country. Epenesa’s ability to put pressure on quarterbacks as well as stop the run would give something the Ravens haven’t had in recent memory, an interior pass-rush presence.
Despite his poor combine performance as well as concerns of a lack of athleticism, his college game tape is enough to prove that any concerns of his should be taken with a grain of salt. The same can be said about Auburn DT Derrick Brown, who also didn't have a great combine performance. If drafted by the Ravens, Epenesa would start and be expected to produce right away. Unlike many other prospects in the draft as well as those who I’ve previously written about, Epenesa is not a raw prospect as his performance in college should translate to the NFL.
Iowa DE A.J. Epenesa
2019 Stats: 32 solo tackles, 17 assisted, 14 TFL, 11.5 sacks 3 PDs, 4 FFs
In addition to very solid stats in 2019, Epenesa displayed very similar numbers in 2018 as well. Despite Epenesa’s strong stats during his time at Iowa, he has a number of considerable weaknesses, which gives reason for why many draft analysts see him potentially falling in the draft.
- Had one of the best bull-rushes in all of college football
- Has the sheer power to bully whoever is across from him
- Displayed a constant ability to put pressure on the quarterback, even if he wasn't disengaging from blockers; his sheer strength drives opposing offensive linemen back into the quarterback
- Has the physical tools to become a dominant DE for years; his 34 inch arms give him the ability to be the first one to initiate contact and dictate the offensive lineman
- Eats up a lot of space making it difficult for running backs to find lanes to shoot through
- Displays a powerful one-armed jab to the chest of the offensive lineman, which gives Epenesa the leverage to dictate
- Lined up as both a 3 technique and a 5 technique defensive end and produced in both spots
- Would most likely best fit as a 3-4 defensive end; he often was more effective when rushing the interior rather than against tackles
- Sets a very strong edge
- Has a nice repertoire of pass-rush moves
- Very good at reading the quarterback’s eyes, timing his jump, and using his long arms to bat down passes
- Not overly athletic or twitchy
- Struggled defending the zone read option in college; the zone read is becoming more and more prevalent in the NFL
- Sometimes has a very upright pass-rush and doesn't utilize his powerful lower body
- Not an agile player
- He doesn't have the ability to get himself involved back in the play when he’s taken out of the play
- Doesn't do a good job of changing direction
- Very seldom did he have success when double teamed
- Had trouble against athletic tackles with good footwork
- Needs to learn how to use his physical tools better
- Had trouble disengaging from blocks
- Needs to refine his pass-rush moves
- Sometimes has a poor get off when the ball is snapped; very frequently, the offensive lineman in front of him is automatically at an advantage when the ball is snapped
Floor Comparison: Lawrence Guy
Ceiling Comparison: Cameron Heyward
How Epenesa fits with the Ravens:
Drafting Epenesa would represent a best player available ideology, which the Ravens swear by. At the same time, he would fill a need. Although it would be most ideal to draft a 5 technique pass-rusher in the first round, nabbing a 3 technique talent like Epenesa would be a fantastic pick. Epenesa would at the very least be incorporated into the defensive line rotation immediately, splitting time with the likes of Chris Wormley, Patrick Ricard, and Daylon Mack. Epenesa’s stature fits the bill of a 3-4 defensive end, which is how the Ravens scheme their defense. Should the Ravens retain Matt Judon (or sign a pass rusher to replace Judon, should he leave), opposing offenses would have to account for both an interior pass-rush as well as a pass rush off of the edge.
To go along with his pass-rush ability, Epenesa would only add to the run stuffing prowess of the Ravens’ front seven. Once Epenesa gains NFL experience and refines some of his technique as well as inconsistencies, he’ll end up becoming a menace in the NFL for many years.