By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – John Clayton is somebody whose opinion and knowledge about the NFL usually deserves the utmost respect.
That’s why it was surprising to see that the long-time NFL writer and analyst has former Iowa defensive end A.J. Epenesa lasting until the third round of the 2020 NFL Draft.
Clayton has Epenesa as the first pick in the third round, and the 65th pick overall, in his latest mock draft, and it apparently is due to the fact that Epenesa ran the 40-yard dash slower than what some had expected at the NFL Combine in February.
“Epenesa has first-round talent, but his slow 40 time at the combine hurts,” Clayton said. “At this spot, he’s an excellent value.”
Clayton has the Cincinnati Bengals picking Epenesa, and if it is with the 65th pick overall, the Bengals will be getting a steal.
Clayton also has former Iowa offensive lineman Tristan Wirfs being taken in the first round, and with the eighth pick overall by the Arizona Cardinals.
Wirfs already was considered a first-round pick before the combine, but he solidified his status with a strong showing at the combine, including running the 40-yard dash in 4.85 seconds despite carrying 320 pounds on a 6-foot-5 frame.
Epenesa, on the other hand, was clocked at 5.04 seconds in the 40, and that apparently is now a concern to some, including Clayton.
“One thing I learned in my six years in the NFL is a lot of mistakes get made at the combine,” said Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz. “The most telling thing about any player is what you see on film, or what you see on the field when you’re standing there.”
Ferentz said a first-round pick should clearly standout on the field, and on film, and he believes that the 6-5, 275-pound Epenesa meets that criteria.
“If you’re on the field with a first-rounder, usually you feel that,” Ferentz said. “There’s something different about guys that usually get drafted in the first round.
“And if you were playing us, I’ve got to think, if you’re an offensive coach, you’ve got Epenesa circled. How are we going to handle this guy? How are we going to keep him from just wreaking havoc on us?
Epenesa capped his three-year college career in spectacular fashion by being named the defensive MVP at the Holiday Bowl. He finished with 2.5 sacks, 1.5 tackles for loss and a forced fumble during Iowa’s 49-24 victory over the University of Southern California.
Epenesa was matched against USC tackle Austin Jackson for much of the game, but it was no contest as Epenesa dominated the potential first-round pick.
In fact, Clayton has Jackson being selected by the Miami Dolphins in the first round, and with the 26th pick overall.
“Take that combine stuff, the five-flat forty, he may have timed five-flat, I’m not disputing that, but he doesn’t play that way,” Ferentz said Epenesa. “And what you saw in the bowl game, and pretty much in any of our games, that’s who he is.”
Ferentz compared Epenesa to former Iowa defensive end Adrian Clayborn, who was selected in the first round of the 2011 NFL Draft by Tampa Bay. Clayborn still is in the league nearly a decade later, having recently signed with the Cleveland Browns.
“They’re not the same player, but they have that same explosion and impact,” Ferentz said. “Adrian was a bonafide first-round pick and just recently signed with Cleveland.
“So he’s had a great career, and I feel the same way about A.J. I’d like to have him on my team.”
Adding to Epenesa’s value is that he is also a person of high character.
“On top of it, he’s a great player and just a great person,” Ferentz said. “The kind of guy you want in the meeting the room, and the kind of guy you want in the building, and the kind of guy you want representing your organization.”
Ferentz is obviously biased where Epenesa is concerned. But Ferentz doesn’t create false narratives just to promote one of his players.
Ferentz calls it like he sees it, and he sees Epenesa as a first-round pick.
Ferentz made his comments before Clayton had released his three-round mock draft.
Clayton appears to be putting too much emphasis on combine-related material instead of truly appreciating what Epenesa does on the field.
My advice to Clayton would be to trust the film, and trust Kirk Ferentz.
A.J. Epenesa is a first-round pick despite what his numbers from the combine might suggest.