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2020 NFL draft: Patriots bolster their pass rush in Todd McShay’s mock draft 3.0

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Related: Potential Patriots draft targets who helped or hurt their stock during Saturday’s combine workouts

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 23 Illinois at Iowa

The New England Patriots’ defense led the league in scoring in 2019, and played a big role ini the team finishing the regular season with a 12-4 record despite a struggling offensive. The natural reaction, therefore, would be to pick players on the offensive side of the ball in a mock draft in order to get the team and its aerial attack in particular back on track. However, ESPN’s Todd McShay went a different route in his first mock after the combine.

Instead of addressing New England’s offense, he added to the team’s defense by selecting a talented edge player A.J. Epenesa out of Iowa with the 23rd overall selection. McShay’s reasoning behind the pick certainly makes sense, and Epenesa himself looks like a player the Patriots might be interested in near the bottom of the first round in April:

23. New England Patriots

A.J. Epenesa, DE, Iowa

The Patriots recorded 47 sacks last season, so pass rush isn’t any form of weakness in Foxborough. But Epenesa is a perfect fit as a 3-4 defensive end replacement for Trey Flowers one year after Flowers signed with Detroit. He plays right around 280 pounds and with power, making up for a lack of explosiveness (he ran a 5.04-second 40 at the combine). Epenesa finished his final Iowa season with eight sacks in five games, but his ability to set the edge against the run shouldn’t be discounted. While the Patriots might need an interior offensive lineman or safety, with Joe Thuney and Devin McCourty set to be free agents, the value isn’t as strong at No. 23. And don’t expect coach Bill Belichick to draft a receiver in the first round in back-to-back years despite a desire to upgrade there, too.

The Patriots finished the 2019 regular season with 47 quarterback sacks, as pointed out by McShay, but seeing them address their defensive front seven early in the draft would still not be surprising. Of course, a lot depends on the free agency status of two of the team’s most productive pass rushers: Jamie Collins and Kyle Van Noy, who ranked first and second on the team with 7.0 and 6.5 sacks, respectively, are both unrestricted free agents.

In case one or both of the two leave New England later this month, adding help up front becomes imperative and the draft is the cheapest way of doing that. Epenesa therefore appears to be an intriguing candidate to be added to a pass rushing group that is projected to be built around Dont’a Hightower, Chase Winovich and John Simon as three of its core contributors from either the second level or the edge.

“AJ Epenesa has been a dynamic defensive playmaker across his last two seasons at Iowa, racking up 30.5 tackles for loss, 22 sacks, eight forced fumbles and seven pass deflections. His blend of length, devastating power, technique and urgency gives him a chance to do the same in the NFL,” wrote The Draft Network’s Joe Marino about him. “Epenesa is a tailor-made fit for the New England Patriots style of defensive linemen where length and heavy hands to control at the point of attack are required.”

“Overall, Epenesa is an ascending prospect with exciting physical tools, production and technical refinement that project him to be an early starter in a 4-3 alignment but he has the extension skills needed for two-gaping duties as a five-technique,” continued Marino in his breakdown of the the 21-year-old defender. “Epenesa has the upside to become a pillar of an outstanding front seven at the next level.”

While other intriguing targets are still on the board in McShay’s mock draft — including Arizona State receiver Brandon Aiyuk (24th to the New Orleans Saints), LSU safety Grant Delpit (31st to the San Francisco 49ers), and Texas A&M defensive tackle Justin Madubuike (32nd to the Kansas City Chiefs) — seeing New England go after Epenesa in this particular scenario is not surprising. Much like Chase Winovich a year ago, he appears to have “Patriots” written all over him.