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2020 NFL draft scouting report: Iowa DL A.J. Epenesa gives the Patriots some versatility on the defensive front

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Related: Scouting report: Notre Dame WR Chase Claypool

NCAA Football: Iowa at Illinois Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

One area the Patriots should look to address early in the draft is their defensive front seven. Their main loss on the defense line was Danny Shelton, who signed with the Detroit Lions. The Patriots signed rotational DL Beau Allen as part of the competition to replace Shelton’s role in the defense. Allen is by no means a lock to make the roster, so the Patriots should continue to beef up their defensive front. The easiest area to do that at a cheaper cost is in the draft.

One player that could suit their fancy in the first round comes from a program whose coach is a former Bill Belichick assistant from their Cleveland days.

Name: A.J. Epenesa

Position: Defensive End

School: Iowa

Week 1 Age: 21 (22 on September 15th)

Size: 6’5” 275, 34 1/2” arms, 10 1/8” hands

2019 Stats: 49 tackles, 14.5 TFL, 11.5 sacks, 4 FF

Workout numbers: 5.04 40, 32.5” vertical, 9’8” broad jump, 4.46 5-10-5 shuttle, 7.34 3-cone

Strengths: Epenesa wins by out-leveraging and overpowering his opponent with strength and quality hand placement as a rusher. He profiles more as an edge-setter/bull rusher type defensive end that is better suited for playing on the defense’s left edge (lined up against the right tackle). Epenesa is very good at holding the edge in the ground game and bullying lighter and/or inexperienced tackles. He also has two years of quality production

Weakness: Epenesa’s current size/athletic profile limits to a 4-3 scheme on base downs, as he’s currently not big enough for a 3-4 DE role and not athletic enough to be a stand-up rusher either. It’s more likely he’ll fit a 3-4 role as a defensive end than a linebacker, but he’ll need to gain at least 10 pounds to fit that size profile. He’s not going to win running the arc and bending around the tackle.

Expected Round: 1st

Who does he have to beat out? As a likely first round selection, Epenesa will make the roster. However his roster spot will put Deatrich Wise Jr. and Keionta Davis firmly on the bubble, perhaps even on the outside looking in.

2020 Role: Epenesa would immediately be a part of the Patriots defensive line rotation, lining up at both edge rusher spots as a hand-in-the-dirt type rusher as the #3 guy in the rotation behind Winovich and John Simon. His skill set is NFL-ready and he’s very adept at the finer points of pass rushing, which is why he’s a first round prospect.

Long Term Role: Epenesa will eventually rise to the team’s #1 option at defensive end by Year 3 and will be a key cog in the team’s pass rush attack. In addition to play a 5-tech role on base downs, the team will also see if they can slide him inside to the 3, 1, and 0-tech roles in speed packages similar to the 2018 amoeba defense to get favorable match-ups on interior linemen. He’s likely to end up somewhere between Trey Flowers and Adam Butler in terms of impact on the defense, perhaps more close to the former.

Why the Patriots? Epenesa gives the Patriots a plug and play defensive lineman to add to their front and potentially up to five years of quality cost-controlled play as a movable chess piece on the defensive line. Early on he’ll be limited to playing exclusively at defensive end but as he grows more comfortable in the system could see him taking on more roles such as a sub rusher and a 3-down defensive end.

Why not the Patriots? There are two major concerns about him going to the Patriots with the 23rd pick, but none of them have to do with the player himself. The first is simply he gets taken off the board earlier (e.g. Dolphins’ lower first-round selection) than the Patriots’ selection. The second is a player higher up on their board slides down to 23 at a position they feel is more likely to contribute to the long term future of the franchise better than Epenesa. That’s very unlikely, as a plug and play DL with a similar skill set to Trey Flowers is always a good pick for the first round.

Verdict: If you’re looking for a plug-and-play defensive lineman who can play the run and the pass well, Epenesa is the best likely option for the Patriots with the 23rd pick. He can immediately contribute as a rotational defensive end to keep Winovich and Simon fresh throughout the game. As he develops more confidence in the system, I expect his role to increase to being a sub defensive tackle and other fun stuff to confuse opposing offenses. Defensive line isn’t the most pressing need for the Patriots, but Epenesa is a great value for a roster hole that will open up next year with John Simon and Shilique Calhoun headed for free agency.