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2020 NFL Draft prospect profile: A.J. Epenesa, iDL, Iowa

Just where does Epenesa fit in the modern NFL?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 16 Minnesota at Iowa

Historically, when someone brings up the 3-4 defense it calls to mind big, powerful defensive linemen who occupy blockers to free up linebackers. That style of defense, however, is rarely played in the modern NFL. Most teams that employ odd fronts use the style of defense pioneered by Bum Phillips and perpetuated by his son, Wade Phillips.

That style of 3-4 defense is much more aggressive and uses one-gap principles across the front seven, meaning that each lineman and linebacker is responsible for a single gap. It requires smaller, more athletic linemen. That is also the style of defense played by the Giants under both Steve Spagnuolo and James Bettcher when they employed odd fronts.

Under the old style of 3-4 defense, the defensive ends would typically be well over 300 pounds and capable of controlling both the B and C-gaps. More modern defenses, however, need players like Iowa’s A.J. Epenesa who are still big and powerful, but are also relatively lean and athletic.

And while we don’t expect the Giants to draft a defensive lineman early in the 2020 NFL Draft, Epenesa might still be a name to watch if the value is right on the second day.

Prospect: A.J. Epenesa (iDL, Iowa)
Games Watched: vs. Iowa State (2019), vs. Michigan (2019), vs. Minnesota (2019), vs. Nebraska (2019)
Red Flags: None



Games Played: 37

Tackles: 101
Tackles For a loss: 36.0
Sacks: 26.5
Forced Fumbles: 9
Passes Defensed: 7

2019 Stats

Games Played: 13

Tackles: 49
Tackles For a loss: 14.0
Sacks: 11.5
Forced Fumbles: 4
Passes Defensed: 3

Quick Summary

Best: Size, length, play strength, hands, competitive toughness
Worst: Agility, quickness
Projection: A starting 5-technique in a one-gap 3-4 defense.

Game Tape

Full Report

Iowa’s A.J. Epenesa is a big, long, defensive end prospect with very good power in his upper and lower body. He lined up at a variety of positions on the Iowa defensive front, from stand-up EDGE to defensive tackle. Epenesa flashes good snap timing and an explosive get-off when he is attacking into the backfield in obvious passing situations. He makes good use of his length, consistently firing heavy punches into blockers’ chest plates. Epenesa makes a point of getting his hands on blockers first, establishing leverage and control. He also shows a good variety of pass rushing moves for a power player, including a long-arm move, a two-hand swipe, and a push-pull move. Epenesa is particularly effective as a pass rusher when attacking the B or A gaps, where he is both a length and athletic mismatch against interior linemen. He can also be used as a block-eater on stunts and twists to create opportunities for teammates.

Epenesa is a vey stout run defender who is able to match athleticism with zone schemes and is very difficult to move on power runs. He generally does a good job of positioning his hips in his gap and establishing leverage early in the rep to stack and shed blockers at will. Epenesa’s size and length also give him a wide tackle radius and he shows a very strong motor in pursuit of the play.

Epenesa’s size works against him as on outside rushes, showing limited short-area quickness and agility, as well as some lower-body stiffness. Epenesa is capable of beating blockers off the edge, but struggled to carry speed around the corner or bend the edge to the passer. He also showed a mild tendency to play upright, compromising his leverage and making it a bit harder than necessary to discard blockers. Epenesa’s limited burst off the line of scrimmage can also limit his ability to split double-teams.

Overall Grade: 6.4 - Has the traits to be a good starter early in his career in the right scheme. Should immediately be an important contributor for any team that drafts him. An early Day 2 value. [Grading Scale]


A.J. Epenesa projects best as a starting 5-technique in a one-gap 3-4 defense. He also has the versatility to move inside to an 3-technique or Under tackle in four-man nickel fronts. Epenesa has the strength to control blockers at the line of scrimmage but is at his best attacking into the backfield.

Epenesa was frequently used as defensive end or stand-up rusher by Iowa’s defense, but his relative lack of quickness and lower-body flexibility limited his ability to consistently win off the edge or finish at the quarterback. That being said, he is very strong at the point of attack and is capable of standing up to tackle/tight end double teams and could be used as a 7-technique defensive end in a “heavy” front in short-yardage situations.

Despite his athletic limitations, Epenesa doesn’t look uncomfortable when asked to drop into space as a part of a zone blitz. While he shouldn’t be asked to hold up in coverage against many players or for long, he does move well enough to help create confusion on the offensive line.

He is a very good run defender, capable of matching athleticism and power with most offensive linemen. Epenesa has very heavy hands and is capable of winning the battle to establish leverage and control early in the rep. Once establishing control, he is a patient and disciplined defender who can discard blocks at will to make a play.

Epenesa won’t be a fit for every team, but for those teams that are heavily based in attacking 1-gap 3-4, he presents a rare and valuable skill-set.