Statistical Profile: In three seasons at Iowa, Epenesa racked up 36 tackles-for-loss and 26.5 sacks while forcing nine fumbles.
Where he wins: Epenesa isn’t the quick-twitch, bendy edge rusher that has become so popular in the NFL over the past 10-15 years, but his polish and power have led to strong production in the Big 10 during his career.
Epenesa’s game is built on jarring hands, elite length and a variety of rush moves that have allowed him to win 1v1 at a tremendous rate over the past few seasons. He mixes up long arms, cross-chops and a devastating push-pull to bully blockers off balance and create clearer paths to the quarterback.
If Epenesa could physically overpower you, the results could get downright ugly, as it did against Minnesota and even in other games this season. I also think his first step is better than advertised, although he can a bit of a snap jumper too, which will lead to the occasional offsides.
Length, power and hand work are how Epenesa wins in the run game as well. He can fire out and lock up blockers, not allowing them inside his pads and holding his gap stoutly at the point of attack. Epenesa was rarely pushed around by solo blocks, and running at him was often not a wise plan of attack by opposing teams.
Where he may struggle: I’ve long said that most edge pass rushers win on the outside hip of the opposing tackle, and if they can’t find a way to win on that plane with consistency, they probably aren’t going to be a high-caliber outside rusher. That’s where Epenesa concerns me. He simply isn’t very “pass rush athletic”.
A combination of burst, bend or flexibility and sustained speed up the arc, as well as fluid change of direction, make up pass rush athleticism. I use the phrase “pass rush athletic” because a player can test well at the Combine, especially in some areas, but it just doesn’t translate to the field when you watch them on tape.
Epenesa has a good first step in obvious pass rush situations, but he is a slow-burn pass rusher who relies on being able to bully offensive lineman around rather than out-athlete them. He is extremely tight in the hips and takes wide paths around the back of the pocket, often pushed past the quarterback unless he has completely dismantled the opposing blocker. There just isn’t the flexibility to win on the outside track to the quarterback very often, nor is there the fleet-footed change of direction to beat tackles on their post (inside) foot either.
And when Epenesa is in space, the results are painful to watch. He labors to change direction and struggles to finish outside his frame when he can’t tackle in a direct line. The junior’s length helps him a little bit in this regard, but there is just so much tightness and heavy-footed moving that I would be very worried about him on the edge full-time in the NFL.
Even in college, teams left him unblocked and ran away from him all the time, because they knew he didn’t have the burst or agility to chase down most plays from the backside. They utilized the same strategy on zone reads, optioning off Epenesa because they knew he was a liability when asked to move laterally.
It is simply really hard to be a high impact edge defender if you are not athletic for your size. Epenesa’s struggles to corner consistently and even to impact the pocket when he did face tackles who could match him physically were evident on tape. Can he be a full-time, every-down player in the NFL with those limitations?
Bucs Fit: There are actually similarities from Epenesa’s game to current Bucs defensive lineman Carl Nassib’s, although the Iowa edge defender is more polished in his array of rush moves. Epenesa’s optimal fit in the NFL is going to be playing sparingly as a 4-3 defensive end against certain teams/schemes, and seeing a healthy amount of his pass rush reps come from an interior alignment, where his lack of athleticism will be less of a concern. This will also allow Epenesa to react quicker to the snap, which will alleviate his lack of twitch out on the edge.
On the inside, Epenesa’s length and hand usage can be a mismatch against guards and centers, and he’ll be allowed to rush on a more linear plane to the quarterback. He was highly effective when Iowa moved him inside on long/late downs, but he did get hammered whenever he was up against a double team, so there is an element of risk in run defense.
Ultimately I do think Epenesa could interest the Bucs, but I don’t see it happening in Round 1, and it might not even happen in Round 2. I think his stock could fall after the Combine, but if the Bucs re-sign Jason Pierre-Paul and Shaq Barrett, they’d probably rather continue developing Epenesa’s more athletic former teammate in Anthony Nelson rather than spend a first or second round pick on another edge defender, especially one with Epenesa’s lack of upside and full-time impact.
Jon Ledyard is PewterReport.com's newest Bucs beat writer and has experience covering the Pittsburgh Steelers as a beat writer and analyzing the NFL Draft for several draft websites, including The Draft Network. Follow Ledyard on Twitter at @LedyardNFLDraft
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