According to SI.com’s Kevin Hanson, the Indianapolis Colts could be looking to boost their pass rush with the projected selection of Iowa edge rusher A.J. Epenesa with the 13th overall pick of the 2020 NFL Draft:
13. Indianapolis Colts: A.J. Epenesa, EDGE, Iowa
Even though the Colts have used several early-round picks in recent drafts on pass rushers, the team’s starting defensive ends—Jabaal Sheard and Justin Houston—are both in their 30s and set to become free agents in 2020 and ’21, respectively. While not the most explosive off the line, Epenesa possesses a nice blend of power, length and heavy hands and closed 2019 with eight sacks and four forced fumbles over his final five games.
The 6’6”, 280 pound junior defensive end is fresh off a season for the Hawkeyes in which he recorded 49 tackles, 11.5 sacks, 4 forced fumbles, and 14 tackles for a loss in 13 games.
It was Epenesa’s second straight season of having double-digit sacks for the Iowa defense, as the 2x All-Big Ten First-Team selection shined as a 3-year starter for head coach Kirk Ferentz’ squad—having also earned Freshman All-Big Ten Honors in 2017.
Epenesa won’t necessarily “wow anyone” with his speed, but he wins off the edge with his power, a relentless motor, and exceptional hand placement—which is a testament to his outstanding technique and tenacity.
AJ Epenesa has declared for the 2020 NFL draft.— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) January 14, 2020
A top 10 player on my board.https://t.co/TmdoSZrAma
#Iowa DE A.J. Epenesa is such a stud w/ his length, power and body control. Only a true soph, he's going to be rated HIGH in the 2020 NFL Draft class.— Dane Brugler (@dpbrugler) January 1, 2019
Of course, as Hanson notes, the Colts could use an influx of youth and talent at defensive end, as versatile veteran Jabaal Sheard (30) is set to become a free agent, while Justin Houston just turned 31 years old—meaning the Colts need to find a long-term answer on the other side of emerging young pass rusher Kemoko Turay relatively soon.
The Colts also finished the 2019 season with 41.0 sacks, which was tied for the 15th most in the NFL—and thus, was around a league average unit (although that was with Turay missing 12 games because of a season-ending injury).
Epenesa’s lack of speed for a Colts defense that covets it is a bit concerning, but he’s modeled his game after Houston Texans veteran NFL superstar J.J. Watt—and could similarly be an under-the-radar future star in the NFL—featuring quickness, power, and length.
As general manager Chris Ballard has preached since his arrival, the Colts want to win in the trenches, which can better help win football games in December and January (see also: this year’s NFC Champion San Francisco 49ers).
Epenesa would appear to a very solid—if unspectacular addition to the Colts defensive line, and even though the team still has an uncertain future at starting quarterback (among other team needs), there’s always the possibility that they could fill such a hole a little later on in the NFL Draft—or through alternative means entirely.