2020 NFL Draft Scouting Report

A.J. Epenesa

June 15, 2019 11:00 PM EST

Cehase Young Scouting Report picture

School: Iowa

Height: 6'6"

Weight: 280

Eligibility: JR

Uniform: #94

Position: EDGE

Evaluated by: Austin Smith
June 15, 2019

Prospect Overview

Epenesa was one of the prospects I couldn't wait to get a closer look at this summer because he has such a unique blend of size, athleticism, and power. At six feet, five inches and nearly 280 pounds, Epenesa doesn't have your traditional defensive end build or skill set. He has a thick frame and defeats offensive linemen with his strength more often than his burst. Still, the results have been impressive. After tying for second on the roster with 4.5 sacks as a true freshman, Epenesa tied for 13th in the nation with 10.5 last season. He also put together 16.5 tackles for loss to finish in the top 30 of college football, and now has 22 in his career. It's been an impressive start for the Polynesian powerhouse out of Edwardsville, Illinois (St. Louis area) - as a junior, Epenesa is being mentioned as an All-American candidate. With such an impressive track record and skillset, he is also being regarded as a future first-round pick and another strong season at Iowa will only further cement that status.

AJ Epenesa Scouting Report image 1


Epenesa's strength is extremely impressive, and if you want to see how dominant he can be, watch him put the Northwestern left tackle on skates in route to the quarterback. He plays with so much shock in his punch, and his lower half kicks into overdrive when he gets a player off balance. Even more impressive could be that he appears as if he could continue to add strength once he gets into an NFL lifting program. If that weren't enough for tackles to deal with, he also has very good length in his arms. The more I watched his film, the more I realized that he is rarely the second player to make contact in a battle. He shoots his hands in a violent fashion, and his hand work is usually strategically placed. There are times where he turns a player with a punch to the shoulder and others where he gets them right in the chest and knocks them backward. Whether rushing the passer or attempting to set the edge, he uses his long arms very effectively.

Probably the most surprising trait I saw from Epenesa was his ability to consistently play with leverage. There were a few occasions where he popped straight up out of his stance and got driven back, but for the most part, he fires out low and gets under his opponent. Epenesa's leg drive was also notable once he got underneath the blocker. He converts his initial burst into power so well, and there are a fair number of examples of Epenesa walking a tackle back into the quarterback's lap. I also love the competitive drive we see from him. Epenesa plays with a ton of passion, and it shows on a down-by-down basis. He puts himself in position to make plays downfield. He lunges against the grain to attempt to trip the ball carrier up or grab anything he can get his hands on. You just get a sense that Epenesa wants to constantly be involved in the play, and that is a quality trait among defenders.

Areas for Improvement

While I love Epenesa's effort, his acceleration is not what you would typically see from a first-round caliber edge rusher. He does occasionally get blockers off balance with his initial burst, but that's not the go-to move in his arsenal. While he does usually chase plays down the field, his speed often hinders him from getting back in on the play. Also, I think his awareness could be more consistent, and it starts by getting his eyes in the backfield more often. There are instances where Epenesa disengages at the perfect time to be in a position to make a tackle or get his hands up in a passing lane. Still, those plays aren't the norm, and I think it's because Epenesa gets too caught up trying to defeat the block.

AJ Epenesa Scouting Report image 2

Also, when he does gain a step on the blocker and attempts to turn the corner, he doesn't stay tight enough to keep from being pushed out of the play. When turning the corner, it's imperative to stay tight to the blocker in order to negate his strength. If the tackle can't extend his arms, he has no power, but when Epenesa turns too wide, it bails the blocker out. In fact, any strategy that doesn't involve power; he needs work. I've seen him try to put a spin move on a blocker but his footwork wasn't quick enough to have success. Further. Epenesa doesn't change up his tempo as an edge rusher. More sudden athletes can use hesitation or the ability to change direction to their advantage, but that's just not in the cards for him.

AJ Epenesa Scouting Report image 3

Draft Stock

I personally think Epenesa can be a top-10 talent. His blend of power and athleticism is far more rare than most of the edge rushers we see every year. Guys like Cameron Jordan, J.J. Watt, and Calais Campbell are so valuable because they are capable of not only playing in any defensive front, but they can do so at a high level. Teams can move Epenesa all over the front to get their best four on the field or take advantage of the matchups that favor the defense.

While his overall athleticism is not what one might want in an edge rusher, he is more than capable of consistently having success. Epenesa could also play end in a 3-4 scheme, and that is where I feel he could be his most effective. He hasn't had many reps as a defensive tackle in any front, but I've got no doubt he could play anywhere on the line in nickel situations. Epenesa works hard at his craft and competes at a high level, which is infectious to those around him. It's the kind of presence that elevates a defense instantly, and those kinds of prospects don't usually last long on draft day.

Player Comparison

No one compares to Watt, but you see similarities in Epenesa. His build resembles Watt's coming out of Wisconsin, and the effort and passion are similar as well. I also feel comfortable saying Epenesa's character is similar to Watt's, and that may be one of the higher compliments a prospect can receive. When it comes to his skillset, he reminds Derek Wolfe of the Denver Broncos. Wolfe's game is reliant upon his power, and Epenesa is currently in the same boat. However, Epenesa does have better length and initial quickness that Wolfe displayed entering the NFL.

Games Evaluated

vs. Iowa State (9-8-18)
vs. Wisconsin (9-22-18)
vs. Maryland (10-20-18)
vs. Northwestern (11-10-18)
vs. Nebraska (11-23-18)
vs. Mississippi State (1-1-19)

Notes from Film

  • Not the most explosive athlete but his jumps are still good for his size
  • Through two games, he appears to play with consistent leverage despite being one of the taller players on the field
  • A few instances where he'll pop straight up off the snap but rare
  • Always tries to have a hand in the play, even when he is not in a position to do so. He'll dive against the grain to try and trip up a player or grab a piece of cloth just to help
  • Not going to be an elite edge rusher but when he converts speed to power, he makes big linemen look helpless
  • Flashes good awareness of when to disengage and go for the tackles, eyes are always scanning the backfield. Could use more consistency timing his disengage
  • There were a few times I saw him do a good job of getting his head across the blocker's face when pursuing from the backside down the line of scrimmage
  • Gets a lot out of his long arms
  • Tremendous shock in his hands. He routinely gets guys off balance with his punch.
  • Love his intensity on a snap-by-snap basis
  • Can't say enough about his power, both in his punch and lower body
  • Don't like the reps I see when he lines up standing up
  • Judging by his skillset and some of the techniques he is more comfortable using, I honestly think his best fit is as an end in an odd-man front that can line up anywhere in the nickel
  • Won't impress with his closing speed when he's in pursuit but the effort is there
  • Consistently sets the edge with good arm extension
  • Power is by far his top asset which scares me because his frame looks like he could add more bulk

Scouting Video Courtesy of SJ Sports

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