Packers: Clearing Up Any Concerns About Drafting A.J. Epenesa

Fresh off a pedestrian showing at the NFL Scouting Combine in late February, A.J. Epenesa has seen some draft analysts begin to question the defensive end’s potential as a pro athlete, with some even projecting him to drop down to the second round in their mock drafts. 

While that may seem to be stretch to a few media members who swear by the young man’s considerable skill set, there’s no doubting that Epenesa’s stock has dropped to the point where many teams selecting in the bottom half of the first round are preparing to ponder the possibility of the former Iowa Hawkeye being available to them. 

One of those teams is the Green Bay Packers, who if they hold serve in the 30th slot, could be presented with the scenario of having to choose between one of the many highly coveted wide receivers in this year’s draft or a junior lineman who has amassed 36.5 sacks in 39 games as a collegian. 

Any possible last-minute discussions that may take place among members of the Packers’ braintrust once Brian Gutekunst and company are on the clock could certainly center around Epenesa. In particular, the behind-the-scenes conference-call debate may very well focus on a quick back-and-forth on the benefits and drawbacks of drafting the 2-time First Team All Big Ten prospect. 

The heated conversation may go something like this, as his supporters and detractors will be armed with substantial ammo, with pros and cons getting tossed around like a tennis ball in a high-stakes match at the French Open. 

Let’s try to address these points — from a front office executive’s perspective —  by tackling some of the apprehensions that come with claiming Epenesa with the 30th pick.

“This guy is a defensive end. We have plenty of pass rushers and we were actually quite formidable at pressuring the QB last year. I mean, we ranked fourth overall in sacks, with 41.” 

Yes, the free agent additions Za’darius and Preston Smith were masterful, as both — “Z” in particular —  were a force to be reckoned with on a weekly basis. But what about our depth? Is last year’s first round pick Rashan Gary ready to elevate his game to give the Smith brothers some relief and — more importantly — can the former Michigan Wolverine adequately fill in as a starter should one of Green Bay’s top two pass rushers miss one or more games? Epenesa not only provides Mike Pettine another big body to line up on the outside, but the rookie-in-waiting is much more than a edge rusher; he’s a 6’5”, 280-pound athlete who as a collegian has proven to be strong enough to push around guards inside as an interior lineman. And despite his height, Epenesa has also proven that he can play with leverage and be quite stout at the point of attack. Versatility earns you points in the draft and No. 94 certainly brings that quality to the table. 

“What about his unsightly 5.04 40 time he posted at the NFL Scouting Combine?”

There’s no way to sugarcoat it — that 40 time wasn’t what NFL evaluators were expecting. However, measuring how fast a player runs 40 yards in a straight line is only one small component of assessing an NFL prospect. This is particularly the case when we’re talking about a 280-pound lineman who will rarely — if ever— have to run 40 yards in any direction while he’s on the field. Plus, not every athlete excels at running the 40 given the unfamiliar environment they find themselves in. For the perfect example of this, look no further than Jalen Reagor’s 4.47 40 in Indianapolis. While it was a respectable result for a wide receiver, it didn’t quite match what the former Big 12 star accomplished on film. At his virtual pro day, Reagor was much more at ease with his familiar surroundings and registered an amazing 4.22. The other factor to keep in mind when a draft-eligible athlete puts up a lackluster 40 time is that NFL teams will often turn to the tape to reassess how fast or slow the player in question actually performed in shoulder pads. According to former college quarterback and NBC Sports studio host/play-by-play announcer Paul Burmeister, Epenesa plays much more like a 4.8 guy. 

“Epenesa doesn’t bend the edge like so many of the sack masters we typically see on Sundays.” 

Look, the Big Ten product won’t ever be confused with Von Miller. He’s just not that type of player. Instead, Epenesa is a power rusher who wins his battles with his refined hand skills and multiple pass-rush moves, including the swiper and arm-over, among others. Moreover, the 21-year-old has 34.5-inch arms that he uses to get the initial punch on his blocker, which prevents his opponent from getting into his chest. And on a final note, Epenesa is a strong-side end, which means he’ll line up where tight ends are usually stationed. On this side of the line of scrimmage, he will undoubtedly be forced to contend with plenty of double-teams and even triple-teams when he’s getting chipped by a running back. He’ll have to win his battles with length, strength and technique rather than agility. That formula has worked well for him in his three years in Iowa City, considering that he’s made 63 plays behind the line of scrimmage in 39 games, as referenced by Pat Kirwin on his “Movin’ The Chains” show. If that doesn’t scream playmaker, then I don’t know what does? 

Well, he just looks and moves like a big ol’ lineman rather than an athletic edge rusher.”

Epenesa is a 280-pound technician. His size is real in that he didn’t throw on 20 pounds before the combine and he didn’t need to sweat off bad weight. He’s big, long and solid. That size helps him not only win physical battles inside and on the edge, but it also gives him the stamina to not only get in a lot of reps, but it’ll also provide him with enough gas in the tank to make plays in the fourth quarter. Yeah, he’s not twitchy, but as Kirwan said on his show last week, Epenesa will be able to pile up a fair share of sacks by taking advantage of “sloppy” blockers, which the NFL is loaded with. 

Well, what are people saying about him? I don’t hear Epenesa being mentioned in the same breath as Chase Young when it comes to edge rushers.” 

Young is far and away the best edge player in this year’s draft and no one is in his same class. However, everything I’ve heard so far about Epenesa has been positive. Here are some of the comments. 

Chris Simms (former NFL quarterback and NBC Sports analyst): “He is one of the slam-dunk safest picks in the draft.” 

Pat Kirwin (former NFL executive and co-host of “Movin’ The Chains”): “If you’re in the second half of the first round, I don’t know why the hell you’d ever want to pass up this guy.” 

Daniel Mogollon (AllMedia NY sports writer and co-host of the B1G Ten podcast): “Epenesa is a first-round talent in my evaluation. He has excellent size and length, with underrated athleticism for a man that big. Powerful at the point of attack, he can hold the edge and bull his way into the backfield. He has a good feel for the game and knows when to get his mitts up.”

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When ~Reverend~ Ralph Mancini is not tackling hard news in New York City, he enjoys analyzing his favorite sports team, the Green Bay Packers. You can follow him on twitter at ReverendRalph.

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