Some scouts projected Iowa defensive end AJ Epenesa as a first-round pick in this year’s draft, but he slipped to the 54th pick and the Buffalo Bills. Here are Epenesa’s odds at Mybookie to win 2020 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year as well as the Bills’ over/under win total.
Playing at Edwardsville High School in Illinois, Epenesa was an All-American in both football and track. Why did he choose to play at Iowa? His father, Eppy, walked on to the Iowa football team after moving from the American Samoa. AJ became the highest-rated recruit to play for a Kirk Ferentz-led team at Iowa.
He was named to the Big Ten All-Freshman team in 2017. He finished with 15 tackles, including eight solo stops and seven assists, along with 5.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, one pass break-up and one forced fumble. Epenesa’s first career sack came against Wyoming quarterback Josh Allen, who is now Buffalo’s starter.
“Going into that game, we knew who he was, what he’s about and what he could do,” Epenesa said. “To this day, there’s no quarterback that I’ve had to sack that was tougher than Josh Allen. He was really hard to bring down.”
As a sophomore in 2018, Epenesa was one of five national finalists for Polynesian Player of the Year and was first-team All-Big Ten. He saw action in all 13 games, leading the team in tackles for loss (16.5-81) and sacks (10.5-66) while recording 37 tackles, four pass break-ups, eight QB pressures, four forced fumbles and a blocked punt.
Then last year, Epenesa was a finalist for the Ted Hendricks Award, first-team All-Big Ten, second-team All-American and the Iowa team MVP on defense. Epenesa started every game and recorded 49 tackles, including 32 solo stops and 17 assists. He led team with 14.5 tackles for loss, 11.5 sacks, and four forced fumbles and also had nine QB pressures and three pass break-ups. In a win over USC in the Holiday Bowl, he was named the game’s Defensive MVP. Epenesa had four tackles, including three solo stops and one assist. He tied the Iowa bowl record with 2.5 sacks vs. USC, along with collecting fourth forced fumble of the season.
With the 6-foot-6, 280-pound Epenesa on the defensive line last season, the Hawkeyes won 10 games and limited opponents to 308.2 yards (196 passing, 113 rushing) and 14 points per game.
Epenesa’s best edge move around the corner is his patented swiper move. There is one problem with the swiper move, however. The success of that move is intrinsically tied to whether or not an offensive lineman actually shoots his punch at Epenesa. The Bills took him with the No. 54 overall pick.
“In a perfect world, he’ll play a backup position the first season potentially to move inside on rush situations,” Bills coach Sean McDermott said.
Epenesa lacks an explosive first step on tape but buoyed his physicality and heavy hands into high-end production at the collegiate level, finishing his career as the first Hawkeye with back-to-back seasons of double-digit sacks since Matt Roth (2003-04).
“He has strong hands and brings that edge and inside pressure,” said Mel Kiper, Jr., ESPN analyst. “He can drive an offensive tackle into the quarterback. He did a great job against (Southern California offensive tackle) Austin Jackson, who went in the first round to the Miami Dolphins.”
Epenesa now joins three other Hawkeyes who are on Buffalo’s active roster: guard Ike Boettger, wide receiver Nick Easley, and strong safety Micah Hyde. Iowa has had at least one player drafted in every NFL Draft since 1978. No school has more players on the Bills than Iowa.
“I’ve coached players that have come from that culture,” McDermott said of the school. “The minute we drafted A.J., I immediately got a couple of texts from players that I’ve coached that went to Iowa that know him or know of him or know of his family. It seems like there’s a lot of parallels between their culture and our culture here.”