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Draftmas preview: Why Iowa defensive end A.J. Epenesa is perfect for the Chiefs defense

Draft season is looming. Down in the Laboratory, the Nerd Squad is stirring up the KC Draft Guide: Championship Edition.

San Diego County Credit Union Holiday Bowl - USC v Iowa Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

As the NFL Draft nears, the AP Draft Team will be profiling draft prospects that we like or that we think will fit well with the Kansas City Chiefs. Just like last year, we’ll be providing one every day in April leading up to the draft — but until then, we’re getting a head start.

So let’s introduce you to an Iowa defensive end who is tailor-made for defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. He is just one of 225 players who will be profiled in the KC Draft Guide: Championship Edition, which drops April 6th!

A.J. Epenesa, EDGE

NFL Combine - Day 5 Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images
  • 6-feet-5 | 275 pounds | Iowa
  • Glen Carbon, Illinois | 9/15/98
  • Grade: second round
  • Draft range: first round
  • 40 time: 5.04
  • NFL Combine: 7.34 3-cone, 4.46 20-yard shuttle, 32.5” vertical, 9’9” broad jump, 17 bench reps
  • 2019 Stats: 11.5 sacks, 14 tackles for loss, 4 forced fumbles, 49 tackles

Background: Epenesa is a five-star recruit out of Illinois. His father and three cousins played college football. He earned game time as a freshman, earning Big Ten All-Freshman Team honors. As a junior, he was named an AP and Walter Camp second-team All American.

Strengths: Epenesa’s game centers around his length and technique on the edge. When defending the run, he does a good job controlling his gap by dropping his pads, gaining leverage and keeping his chest clean. He has the power to disengage from his block — and does a good job working into the backfield, rather than in reverse. Epenesa is an incredibly savvy pass rusher who sets up his rush plan throughout the game. He has an outstanding feel for how an offensive tackle is setting, the leverage they are trying to work and their plan to counter the moves they’ve seen. As a pass rusher, his ability to work multiple rush moves with his long arms is his calling card. Epenesa consistently gets a good half-man relationship against pass blockers, showing great body control and footwork to keep half of his body unblocked. When pressuring the quarterback, he often is looking for the strip — using his length to reach around for the ball.

Weaknesses: Epenesa lacks the elite speed and bend that is usually desired in modern NFL edge rushers. His first step is adequate to press the edge, but he doesn’t have the speed up the arc to win a hard corner, forcing him to soften it. Neither does he have the best change-of-direction ability, making it hard for him to really snap his hips around a blocker. Epenesa shows good body control in his pass-rush moves, but has to open up his path to the quarterback through footwork and hand usage. Without the speed to chase them down, he will occasionally let a running back get wide.

How he fits with the Chiefs: Epenesa is a large framed, long EDGE prospect who is a plus player on all three downs, offering pass-rushing potential both outside and inside. He is a near-perfect match for the physical attributes Steve Spagnuolo values in his defensive ends, only missing out on one secondary threshold: bench press. His power-centric pass rush plan — which set up by his length — fits in with the rest of the team’s defensive ends. Playing near 280 pounds gives Epenesa the ability to rush from the interior in sub-packages — another trait that Spagnuolo covets at the position.

  • Player comp: Trey Flowers
  • Fit Likelihood: High

After the NFL Combine, Epenesa’s draft stock is in flux because of his relatively poor athletic testing. Since he fits every primary threshold Spagnuolo has for defensive endsjust like current defensive end Frank Clark — I believe there is a chance he will fall in the draft. Epenesa’s outside-inside versatility — along with his length, power and technique — should make him incredibly intriguing to the Chiefs defense.

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