AJ Epenesa
Will AJ Epenesa become a great pro? The Iowa pass rusher has a lot to like but he is no sure thing translating to the NFL. (Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports)

One of the toughest evaluations in the 2020 NFL Draft is AJ Epenesa. The Iowa defensive end had a productive career in college, but it seems fair to wonder whether or not he will be a great pro. There’s a lot to like with Epenesa. There are also some things to worry about. Epenesa feels like a player that could go anywhere on draft day. Top 15 doesn’t sound crazy. Neither does the 3rd round. Good luck projecting AJ Epenesa at the next level.

There are a lot of Pros to AJ Epenesa. The first is that he was a very decorated high school recruit. Iowa doesn’t usually land top recruits either so you wouldn’t know unless you keep up with recruiting. He was the 27th overall HS recruit and number one rated defensive end in the country in 2017. That stuff doesn’t always matter but it’s something.

Epenesa always contributed right away as a true Freshman. You don’t like seeing one year wonders. Epenesa stepped right in as a true Freshman and held his own as a 19-year-old. He notched 4.5 sacks that year and really made a name for himself. It was only a matter of time before he became a force in college football.

AJ Epenesa also has the sack production you want to see. The former Iowa product has 21.5 sacks the past two years. I’ll take that production in the Big 10 with those offensive linemen. He also has 8 forced fumbles during that stretch. Getting the sack is one thing. Forcing turnovers is another and Epenesa does just that. The really good defensive ends make plays on the football. Epenesa doesn’t just cause fumbles, he also swats it down in the pass game with 7 deflections the past two years. Again, there is no questioning the on field production.

With AJ Epenesa, it’s about translating to the NFL. Everybody in the NFL is bigger, faster, and stronger than in college. It’s great that Epenesa was winning his match up in college. However, it’s impossible to not be concerned with the way he was winning.

Every sack comes the same way. Epenesa is 6-foot-6, 275 with 34 1/2 inch arms. Epenesa has power and uses his hands very well. Each and every sack literally looks the same. He overpowers tackles and wins with hand fighting. All of that is great. The problem is there is very little twitch or high end athleticism.

Epenesa did not have a great combine. His lack of athleticism was something I knew was coming before the combine happened. It emphasized the problem with him. AJ Epenesa ran a 5.04 – 40-time. It’s not the end of the world but it’s not ideal. The comp I have seen for Epenesa get thrown around is Trey Flowers. Both are long and come in around the same size. The problem is Flowers ran a 4.83. That’s more of the range you want to see.

Winning the first step is half the battle when rushing the passer. Epenesa never gets a good first step. His 10-yard split of 1.78 is not good. That’s the same 10-yard time Derrick Brown who weighs 325. The question with AJ Epenesa is his pure athleticism and his horrible combine performance did him no favors.

I don’t think Epenesa will be a bust but elite athletic traits are normally the difference between a good and a great player. It’s hard to find a great pass rusher who doesn’t have great athletic tools. Even players like Terrell Suggs or Derrick Barnett weren’t the fastest guys but they were still significantly better in terms of athleticism. Find me the edge rusher who is over a 5.00 – 40 time?

It sort of feels like AJ Epenesa is in no man’s land. He’s powerful enough to play defensive tackle but certainly not big enough. He’s big enough to play the edge but not athletic enough. Even if the comp is Trey Flowers, what does that sort of player look like who is 20 percent less athletic?

AJ Epenesa is one of the hardest players to grade in the 2020 NFL Draft. Will Epenesa become a great pro? You could end up getting a great player. You could also end up getting a player who reaches a ceiling and never becomes a great player. That’s the art of drafting players.

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