After a whirlwind of a rookie season, A.J. Epenesa is finally finding his groove at Buffalo Bills training camp and looks ready to meet the expectations many had for him following his selection in the second round of the 2020 NFL draft. His strong play in practices, coupled with a relentless offseason of training has teammates raving about his potential for the 2021 season.
“A.J., from this offseason looks like a totally different player this year,” defensive tackle Ed Oliver said about his fellow linemate after seeing him through the first week of training camp. “He was here a lot this offseason working out. You can tell even with his get off, his awareness, everything.”
A totally different player is just what Buffalo hopes to have in 2021 out of Epenesa, who had quite the roller coaster of a season in 2020. Not only did he miss out on OTAs and rookie minicamp due to a worldwide pandemic, but the former Iowa star was tasked with dropping a significant amount of weight in order to develop into the caliber of player Buffalo’s front office believed he could become.
The 6-foot-5 pass rusher was a two-time All Big-10 selection after recording 86 tackles, 31 tackles for loss, 21.5 sacks and eight forced fumbles during his final two seasons with the Hawkeyes, in which he played at roughly 280 pounds. But after being drafted by the Bills, concerns about his play speed and lack of explosiveness led to the team asking him to drop roughly 20 pounds. Epenesa got to work immediately to shed the weight, but he overshot the mark, and his weight dipped as low as 245-pounds.
Epenesa struggled throughout his rookie season as he not only had to adjust to the NFL in a year impacted by COVID-19, but he also needed to learn to play the game in an entirely different way than he was accustomed to, in a completely different body than he’s ever had.
Epenesa thrived in Iowa’s defense while mostly playing as a two-gap defender that relied on his heavy hands and power to maul offensive linemen. But his lack of burst and get off to really threaten the outside hip of offensive tackles as a pass rusher was an issue that Buffalo believed could be fixed by shedding weight and lowering his body fat percentage.
Brought along slowly, Epenesa played just 110 snaps in the Bills’ first 10 games But after the bye week, Epenesa played 181 defensive snaps over the team’s final six contests, adding another 71 snaps in three playoff games.
Epenesa’s lack of strength at the point of attack was evident early in the season. He struggled to set the edge and maintain his gap as a run defender, with teams even feeling comfortable enough using just a tight end or running back to block him at times. But as the season went on and Epenesa grew stronger and more comfortable at his new weight, the game appeared to slow down for him.
Epenesa finished the season with 14 tackles, one sack and one pass breakup, in addition to 11 hurries and one hit according to Pro Football Focus. Statistically, he was a disappointment, but on tape, it became evident that he improved in each and every game he was on the field – both physically and mentally.
After laying a solid foundation in his rookie season, Epenesa knew that he still had a ton of work to do in order to develop into the impactful player that could take over games as he did in college. So while his teammates enjoyed their offseasons in Florida, Arizona, or California, among other travel destinations, Epenesa remained in Buffalo to train at the team facilities.
“My frame of mind was just I wanted the coaches to see that I’m here working,” Epenesa told reporters Friday. “My first real offseason. A lot of the vets have their own routines, they have different facilities they go to or their own facilities. But for me, I wanted to be here in person because I knew all the gains I had to make and I just wanted the coaches to see me here, see me in the weight room, putting the work in. It was something I wanted McDermott, Beane and (strength and conditioning coach) Ciano to see firsthand, that I’m here doing it in front of them.”
Epenesa worked out in Orchard Park, putting on quality weight while working on his speed and explosion and he believes that his efforts have paid off. While he feels stronger and faster, the tangible numbers of his body weight, along with his improved speed times are proof that he’s transforming himself and seeing real results that are translating to the field.
“Just getting my weight up, getting bigger, faster, and stronger,” Epenesa said about the goals he set for himself during the offseason. “I didn’t really set any numbers goals other than the weight. Just to improve myself and feel my body getting stronger. I can definitely feel myself getting twitchier and the more time you spend the more you can tell. The weights are going up, the times are going up when you’re running the sprints and everything and I could definitely just feel it. When I’m running, sprinting, jumping, it’s a big difference.”
While the 22-year old was hard at work during the offseason, the Bills brought in more competition to push their young defender, selecting Greg Rousseau and Boogie Basham in the first and second rounds of the 2021 NFL draft. While many young players coming off a disappointing season might feel threatened by the presence of two new high draft picks at their position, Epenesa says that he’s excited for the opportunity to be pushed by his new teammates.
“When I first saw it, I was kind of happy. It adds to the competition, you know?” Epenesa said about the addition of Rousseau and Basham. “Competition breeds excellence. I knew Carlos before, we talked a little before he got drafted on social media, just as two D-Ends. Then Greg, when we added both of them, I thought this is just going to be a great opportunity to grow and improve. Because now we have two vets, two young guys and those are things that just push you to keep getting better every day.”
Now at 255 pounds with a final goal of 260, Epenesa is comfortable and consistently making big plays in training camp. He’s drawn rave reviews – not just from the media in attendance – but his teammates and coaches as well, who have taken notice of the work he’s put in to get to where he is now.
“A.J. is ready. Hands down,” veteran Mario Addison said bluntly last week. “The things that he did last year – he did good last year – but the things he’s doing now…watch out for A.J.”
“I feel more comfortable with the playbook, knowing where I’m supposed to line up, where I’m supposed to be,” Epenesa said about his growth from year one to year two. “Then the training – I feel quicker, faster, stronger. The benefits from the weight room and adding the weight only helps with my game. So that’s something we were aiming for this offseason and I got it done, so I’m really proud that I was able to do that.
Buffalo’s defensive line struggled to generate any sort of consistent pass rush last season. The defense blitzed more than any unit in the NFL, yet they finished the year with just 38 sacks and no defensive lineman had more quarterback takedowns than Addison’s five. After a year of transforming his body to fit the team’s defensive scheme, Epenesa looks the part and seems primed to break out in a big way during the 2021 season.
“I’m trying to improve and take that next step, but I don’t think there’s anything to prove to anybody,” Epenesa says. “I just come here, put the work in every day and I’ll let the results speak for themselves.”