The New England Patriots enter this year’s draft with plenty of holes all over their roster, but the biggest of which remains quarterback — at least in the eyes of numerous draft experts that think the team should go after a passer in round one. However, not everybody is buying into the hype that the team should address the position with the 23rd overall selection: ESPN’s Todd McShay, for example, does not see the team trying to find Tom Brady’s heir on Day One of this year’s draft.
Instead, he thinks New England will add to a defense that ranked first in the NFL in points allowed last year but suffered some high-profile departures during free agency. His newest mock draft therefore has the Patriots pick Iowa edge defender A.J. Epenesa in round one:
23. New England Patriots
A.J. Epenesa, DE, Iowa
These aren’t the Patriots we are accustomed to seeing. They could use upgrades in a bunch of areas, including quarterback, wide receiver and a handful of spots on defense. I don’t expect coach Bill Belichick to reach for a QB here, and while wide receiver is in play, it seems unlikely two years in a row on Day 1. So how about an edge rusher? LSU’s K’Lavon Chaisson is the better player, but Belichick has a strong relationship with Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz, and Epenesa fits nicely with the Patriots’ 3-4 system as a 5-technique.
The Patriots generally looked good in the pass-rushing department in 2019, but seeing them address their defensive front seven early in the draft would still not be a surprise. After all, the team produced plenty of pressure via scheme and also lost two of its three most productive quarterback disruptors from a year ago in free agency: Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins registered 51.5 and 30 pressures, respectively, but will no longer be available to attack opposing passers in 2020.
Adding help up front therefore becomes imperative for the Patriots, and the draft is the cheapest way of doing that. Iowa’s A.J. Epenesa therefore appears to be an intriguing candidate to be added to a pass rushing group that is projected to be built around off-the-ball/move linebacker Dont’a Hightower — who ranked second on the team in 2019 with 40.5 disruptions — as well as edge defenders Chase Winovich and John Simon.
“A.J. 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.”
“Epenesa projects well as a scheme diverse talent,” added The Draft Network’s Kyle Crabbs. “His value comes in traffic but his penetration ability on the interior is matched by his ability to drive and collapse the [point of attack]. Epenesa is an ace run defender with reactive quickness and terrific length and hand power. His variety as a power rusher offers upside that most players of his stature don’t typically have and as a result he should be coveted in the 2020 NFL Draft by teams regardless of scheme.”
While other intriguing targets are still on the board in McShay’s mock draft — including Oklahoma linebacker Kenneth Murray (24th to New Orleans), LSU edge defender K’Lavon Chaisson (27th to Seattle), or wide receiver Tee Higgins (30th to Green Bay) — seeing New England go after Epenesa in this particular scenario is not surprising. Much like Chase Winovich a year ago, he simply appears to have “Patriots” written all over him.