Defense was always the way to go.
Yes, it’s the Buffalo Bills’ strength. Yes, it’s the area where they rank among the best in the NFL. Yes, it’s the side of the ball on which the majority of their most talented players reside.
And, yes, the offense has plenty of improving to do before it can join the defense in being regarded as playoff caliber.
Those were never reasons for the Bills to avoid doing what they did Friday night with their first pick, 54th overall, in the NFL draft: select a defensive end.
A.J. Epenesa gives them the edge-rushing force they absolutely needed despite the defense’s overall prowess.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with making your strength stronger. That’s what General Manager Brandon Beane and coach Sean McDermott concluded as they mapped out the best course to take the Bills on a deep playoff run that looks to have a very good chance of beginning with an AFC East championship.
Defense will continue to be the engine that drives the Bills, at least until Josh Allen fully comes into his own as a quarterback. For the foreseeable future, this is a team that will depend more on its ability to prevent rather than generate scoring.
Most NFL teams keep nine defensive linemen, and the Bills already had nine veterans at the position. Perhaps Trent Murphy will end up being the odd man out. Either way, the Bills had to consider their long-term future on the D-line, considering Jerry Hughes is recovering from two surgeries and will be 32 at the start of the 2020 season. Mario Addison, the defensive end the Bills signed in free agency, is going to be 33 when the season starts.
That makes Epenesa a clear necessity, not a luxury.
I know there were calls on social media for the Bills to go with an offensive player, which they did in selecting Utah running back Zack Moss with their next pick. The 5-foot-9, 205-pound Moss is a powerful, bruising runner who should form a nice backfield pairing with Devin Singletary, the Bills' 2019 third-round pick.
Still, before Epenesa was chosen, there were plenty of votes for Ohio State running back J.K. Dobbins, once it became clear the prospect some thought might be selected late in the first round would be there for the Bills in the second. That Dobbins came off the board on the very next pick, going to Baltimore, won’t be forgotten by those who desperately wanted him in a Bills uniform.
However, there's every bit as strong a case to be made that the Bills got something of a steal in Epenesa. In fact, early on, the former Iowa star was prominently mentioned as a player they would/should strongly consider with the 22nd pick before they traded it to Minnesota last month for wide receiver Stefon Diggs.
Epenesa’s stock took a hit at the NFL scouting combine when he ran the 40-yard dash in 5.04 seconds, making him the slowest of his position group and likely the reason he fell to the lower portion of the second round. Speed is, of course, a key ingredient for an edge rusher, but it would be incorrect to assume Epenesa lacks the necessary quickness or explosiveness to make an impact.
He told reporters during a Zoom press conference Friday night that he never considered himself a “speed guy” or focused on that aspect of his game. Instead, Epenesa has relied on plenty of other physical gifts. At 6-6 and 280 pounds, he possesses an excellent combination of size, power and speed. In short, he’s a beast who can physically dominate blockers, with a strong reputation for utilizing his superb technique to his advantage to gain leverage and maneuver his way to the quarterback.
In his three years as a starter at Iowa, he had 26.5 sacks, eight forced fumbles, and eight pass defenses. He also was credited with 101 tackles. His best season was 2019, when he had 11.5 sacks, 14.5 tackles for loss, and four forced fumbles to receive second-team All-America honors.
But to fully appreciate the wisdom of this pick, you need to look beyond the quality of numbers. You need to focus on the quality of the person.
"I feel like I do things the right way and I just want to be able to continue to do that and to play well," he said.
By all accounts, Epenesa is the consummate McDermott-Beane kind of guy. The same can be said for Moss, with the Bills sticking to their over-arching theme of building and maintaining a culture that puts team goals ahead of individual accomplishments.
"Both of these guys, we feel, are high-character guys and that's very important to us," Beane told reporters in a Zoom press conference. "That's why they were on the (Bills') board. There were quite a few guys that have gone off during these first few rounds that would have been on our board as talented players, but we just didn't feel they were the right fit. That does weigh with us."
Epenesa is well known for being a tremendously hard worker who lives and breathes football.
Former Bills linebacker Lorenzo Alexander tweeted: “I really loved watching @ajepenesa24 tape! The way he works and plays definitely fits into the culture @BuffaloBills have established!”
Epenesa's father, Eppy, was a walk-on player for the Hawkeyes football team and has long been a workout fanatic who has stressed the importance of good physical conditioning to Epenesa since he was young.
“He kind of ingrained that (walk-on) mentality into me and my siblings growing up in how nothing’s really given, everything is earned,” Epenesa said. “(His father would say), ‘That’s how the world works. Don’t be surprised, when you ask for something, you just don’t get it. That’s not how things go.’ So from a young age and doing all that stuff training and trying to build that extra conditioning and build your body and trying to be as physically fit as you can be so you can showcase your talents off to coaches everywhere, whether it’s in games or camps, just being able to show what you can do because of all the hard work you put in behind the scenes.
“That’s kind of how it’s been throughout my life, trying not to be kind of showboating and bright, kind of stay behind the scenes and get the hard work done. But when it’s time to shine, go out there and do what you do.”
That’s music to the ears of McDermott and Beane. They did exactly what they had to do Friday night when the 54th pick arrived and the right player at the right position was staring them in the face.