Bills DE A.J. Epenesa finishes rookie season with strong second half

Buffalo Bills

Buffalo Bills defensive end A.J. Epenesa (57) runs a play against Miami Dolphins offensive tackle Austin Jackson (73) in the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Jan. 3, 2021, in Orchard Park, N.Y. (AP Photo/Adrian Kraus)

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. (WIVB) – It’s impressive the contributions the Bills got from their 2020 draft class especially since they didn’t have a first-round pick.

It seemed like they got the value of a first-rounder when Iowa defensive end, A.J. Epenesa fell to them in the second-round. At one point he was projected to go in the first but a less than stellar combine outing dropped his stock and that was fine with general manager Brandon Beane.

Epenesa added some much needed youth to the Bills defensive end room but like most rookies, his first season didn’t come without some “bumps” in the road. I put bumps in quotes because he did too much of what the Bills asked of him to get ready for the season and that hurt him to start.

“A.J. played at a much heavier weight at Iowa. We asked him to get his body weight down, make it a better body comp from a fat percentage and he really, not only did he get it down he went way down. He came in probably a little too light, lighter than we wanted but that showed how hard he worked his offseason,” Beane said during his end of the season zoom call.

“I think he came in and started a little slow and we were a little worried how he was gonna hold up against the run early on. He added a little bit but he just couldn’t move the needle.”

Epenesa overcame a slow start after being inactive for the season opener against the Jets. It’s also natural for the Bills to expect an acclimation period for these rookies given the obstacles they had to overcome with the virtual offseason. Especially for a defensive player. It even took the veterans time to come together as a defense, which we saw early on in the season.

That was a theme with the Bills defense, it struggled a little in the beginning of the year but really started to pick things up in the second half of the season, even a little before that as many players go back to the week seven game on the road against the Jets as a turning point for that unit.

Epenesa was no different. He started to show flashes of what we saw in college during the second half of the season and after the bye week, his playing time became more consistent.

“I’m very pleased with how he played the second half of the year. Again, started slow, coaches wanted to earn that trust from him, having some veterans in Jerry [Hughes] and Mario [Addison] and Trent [Murphy] and those guys,” Beane said.

He wasn’t asked to do too much in his rookie season which was probably the best thing for him in order to get a feel for the speed of the NFL especially after the challenging offseason. Guys like Hughes and Addison still led the way, but by the second half of the year, Sean McDermott went with Epenesa and Darryl Johnson behind Hughes and Addison making Trent Murphy a healthy scratch in five straight games after the bye week.

Besides the regular season finale against the Dolphins where many key players rested, the most playing time Epenesa saw came in week 16 on Monday Night football against the Patriots where he played 54% of the defensive snaps, tied for the most in that game with Hughes.

He ended with 14 tackles, a sack and a pass defensed while playing 27% of the defensive snaps for the season, a number that will certainly only increase as he continues to develop. “

“I think he’s got a high ceiling and it’ll be a big offseason for him,” Beane said.

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