Let the record show that A.J. Epenesa is not a borderline first-round pick.

You wouldn’t know that based on his post-combine evaluation the last month. With every mock draft that comes out, there seems to be a growing feeling that the odds of Epenesa missing the first round altogether are more likely than him coming off the board in the first 16 picks. If you had told me that 3 months ago, I would’ve told you that reality was about as likely as the NCAA Tournament getting canceled.

But here we are.

Has the doubt gone too far? For my money, it has. Is it natural to have some skepticism about a combine performance that didn’t wow scouts? For sure. Is that enough of a reason to slide Epenesa nearly out of the first round? Based on what we saw from him the last 3 years, it’s not.

Before I dig into that, I don’t want you to think I’m making this up. If you read any of the post-combine draft takes, you know that’s not the case. This is where the 4 draft experts who I respect the most had Epenesa going in their latest mocks:

Draft expert
Epenesa slot
Mel Kiper Jr. (ESPN)
No. 25
Matt Miller (Bleacher Report)
No. 28
Daniel Jeremiah (NFL.com)
NR
Todd McShay (ESPN)
No. 23

Kiper was the most recent one to join the “late-first round” projection for Epenesa. But, like many others in this industry, there’s skepticism. They say at his current size, he’s a tweener to play inside (he needs to get bigger) or outside (he needs to get faster).

This was what Pro Football Focus’ Mike Renner said about Epenesa related to his post-combine status:

“He doesn’t win with athleticism, but a 5.04 40 (yard dash) is not great,” Renner said. “The (comparison) in the draft guide was Trey Flowers. That’s who he can be in terms of versatility, the way he wins with his hands, but even Trey Flowers ran a 4.93. He is still on the threshold of worrisome athleticism, but the way he wins is not necessarily with athleticism.

“He wins with his strength, wins with his hands. I do think at his age, still young, the only true junior coming out, he can still develop physically, but I think he almost needs to decide hey he’s only 275 pounds right now. Either I go get bigger, 285, 290 and go kick more inside or I start to trim, try to get more cut up and actually try to win on the edges as an edge defender because right now he’s a little bit in no man’s land.”

The irony is that in the middle of his final season at Iowa, Renner had Epenesa pegged as the No. 4 overall pick just 2 spots behind Chase Young. What happened since then? Well, he had 8.5 sacks in his last 6 games including 3 games with multiple sacks. He also forced 4 fumbles and had 33 total tackles — that includes a 14-tackle game against Nebraska — during that 6-game stretch. Epenesa was the best player on an Iowa defense that finished No. 5 in the country in scoring.

The competitiveness in defending the run, the ability to get off double teams, the motor, etc. It was all there.

All the things one looks for in an elite defensive end prospect was on display. Was he as good as Young? No, but did perhaps a side-by-side comparison of one of the best defensive line prospects ever hurt the less-explosive Epenesa? I believe so. They came into the year in the same conversations, and it was Young who had the all-world year while Epenesa didn’t really get going until the latter half of the season.

I’d argue seeing constant double teams at the Power 5-level for the first time might have had something to do with that, too. (People forget that even though Epenesa led the B1G in sacks as a sophomore, he didn’t register his first start until 2019 because of how loaded Iowa was at defensive end).

So then what else happened after that mid-October mock draft that had Epenesa at No. 4 overall? Did he do something off the field? Did he bomb interviews? Did he get hurt? Nope. None of that. The underwear olympics happened.

Epenesa could’ve been better. Even he would admit that. He didn’t look like, say, J.J. Watt did when he made people talk more about things besides his “high motor.” But I bring up Watt because if you go back and look his post-combine “weaknesses,” you might get them confused with Epenesa’s:

  • Lacks edge speed needed to get around advanced offensive tackles
  • Plays too high
  • Struggles to change direction laterally
  • Needs to improve outside contain
  • Can be blown off the ball by double teams

Obviously, Watt squashed those concerns and turned into the NFL’s best defensive player of the decade. If Epenesa has half as good of a career as Watt, he’ll live up to where he’s being pegged as a late-first rounder. Betting against that seems foolish.

And again, this is for someone who checks every character box one could look for. Spend 5 minutes talking to Epenesa and you’ll know he’s not the type of kid who will take an opportunity like this for granted. That’s subjective, yes.

I bring up those “concerns” because they contributed to this growing pre-draft notion that Epenesa’s ceiling might not be as high as some thought it once was. Never mind the fact that Watt blew whatever ceiling he had out of the water with those similar lingering concerns. There’s also some irony in seeing people question the athleticism of Epenesa, AKA the former 5-star recruit who was a dominant 3-sport high school athlete (and one of the best discus throwers in Illinois history).

Is there some subconscious “Iowa players lack athleticism” thing at play here? Seeing Epenesa’s combine performance, there could’ve been some confirmation bias for draft experts like Kiper, who missed the mark badly with Hawkeyes more than once in recent memory:

That Wirfs take is laughable. Like, I’m picturing Chris Doyle reading that and belly-laughing for a solid 10 minutes.

No, I’m not saying “Kiper hates Iowa prospects.” But seeing him drop Epenesa to the end of the first round made me roll my eyes. Shoot, that’s been the case for the last month with nearly all of these mock drafts.

Where do I think Epenesa should go? If I had that No. 16 pick with the Falcons, there’s no way I’d be letting him slip past that point. I can get why he wouldn’t be considered a top-10 pick, but to think of him having a floor as low as the second round — as Kiper said — is going too far.

That seems to be the post-combine theme for Epenesa. It wasn’t long ago we watched him take over games en route to All-America honors to close his Iowa career. But I suppose in the pre-draft evaluation period, that was a lifetime ago.

My advice? Buy low on that Epenesa stock.