NFL Draft scouting profile: Kirk Ferentz on Iowa DE A.J. Epenesa

Feb 1, 2020, 6:09 AM
Iowa defensive end A.J. Epenesa celebrates during the second half of an NCAA college football game ...
Iowa defensive end A.J. Epenesa celebrates during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Illinois, Saturday, Nov. 23, 2019, in Iowa City, Iowa. Iowa won 19-10. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Save for quarterback and maybe running back, the Arizona Cardinals could use an upgrade at most every position group.

Sitting eighth overall in the 2020 NFL Draft will give them the opportunity to plug one hole with a ready-to-go player, and general manager Steve Keim will have a wide range of directions to go.

Focusing more on positions of dire need, both lines could use talent, and few universities are putting out draft multiple first-round draft prospects like Iowa. That’s why Doug & Wolf of 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station asked Hawkeyes head coach Kirk Ferentz to join them Friday.

Iowa has two potential first-round picks in offensive lineman Tristan Wirfs and defensive end A.J. Epenesa, both early-entry players who are 21 years old. You can read Ferentz’s take on Wirfs here.

Here are a few of Ferentz’s key points on Epenesa.

DE A.J. Epenesa, 21, 6-foot-6, 280 pounds

While Wirfs became the first true freshman starter in Ferentz’s tenure of coaching several NFL-caliber offensive lineman, Epenesa didn’t earn a start until his junior year.

Still, he was on NFL scouts’ radars and earned mentioned on preseason watch lists after piling up 10.5 sacks and four forced fumbles with four passes defended as a sophomore in 2018.

“It’s kinda almost comical because he got so many accolades during the summertime and never started a game here with a guy Parker Hesse … Parker was our right end,” Ferentz said. “A.J. played behind him, learned from him for two years. Obviously, we’re not totally stupid, we had him in there on third- and fourth-passing downs and our sub packages. He was sacking guys left and right.

“This is his first year of playing three downs, in his third year. He really did a great job and he learned as the year went on,” Ferentz said. “He has things you can’t teach. I’m not saying he’s (former Iowa product and long-time NFL player) Adrian Clayborn, but he’s like Adrian. He’s really explosive through his lower body and he can use his hands and keep moving. He’s not mechanical.”

Epenesa recorded 11.5 sacks with 49 tackles and four forced fumbles in 2019.

The Draft Network’s Drae Harris explains some concerns about his fit for a team like the Cardinals, who under defensive coordinator Vance Joseph scheme up an odd front. He’s not an explosive edge rusher and is more about power.

He is an edge player, but only for an even front scheme. His average reactive athleticism does not project well to “drop” or play in space for a team that implores an odd front. Not very explosive and lacks good athleticism. He has average “twitch” and is stronger than he is explosive. Needs to develop a counter when his initial move hasn’t succeeded. He lacks an array of pass rush moves and needs to do a better job of setting OTs up and rushing with a plan. Has sufficient get off at the LOS and needs to develop a more consistent motor, or get in better game shape.

In Arizona’s 3-4 defense, Epenesa could add to his frame and play as a defensive end similarly to last year’s third-round pick, Zach Allen.

Five mock drafts counted by our Arizona Sports Mock Draft Tracker have Epenesa going to Arizona at No. 8, as that’s generally viewed as a reach.

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NFL Draft scouting profile: Kirk Ferentz on Iowa DE A.J. Epenesa