Baltimore Ravens draft: The case for A.J. Epenesa at 28th overall

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - FEBRUARY 27: A J Epenesa #DL25 of the Iowa Hawkeyes speaks to the media on day three of the NFL Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium on February 27, 2020 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
INDIANAPOLIS, IN - FEBRUARY 27: A J Epenesa #DL25 of the Iowa Hawkeyes speaks to the media on day three of the NFL Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium on February 27, 2020 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images) /

The Baltimore Ravens have plenty of options when they go on the clock at 28th overall in the upcoming draft. Here’s why A.J. Epenesa should be the pick.

Iowa defensive lineman A.J. Epenesa has been one of the more polarizing prospects that has been linked to the Baltimore Ravens when they make their first-round selection in the draft later this month. He’s considered one of the top three or four edge rushers in this year’s draft class, but beyond Ohio State’s Chase Young, the class is considered weak as a group, so that’s not the compliment it would sometimes be. That being said, Epenesa is an intriguing prospect, and one that could very well end up in the purple in black in the coming weeks, so let’s assess his case to go to Baltimore at 28.

To start with the low-hanging fruit, information access and familiarity with a player are both assets with higher value in this year’s draft when team visits and pro days are non-existent. Given the good relationship the Ravens scouting department has with Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, they’ll likely know as much as any team when it comes to A.J. Epenesa and should have a fairly good sense of what they’re getting. While coach-speak only goes so far, it could also be a tiebreaker in a draft with so many unknowns. If DeCosta approves of the tape, it could make a good deal of sense to be “safe” with the team’s first-rounder.

There also may be no better fit for Epenesa to realize his full potential than Baltimore. At his most dominant, Epenesa looks like a young Calais Campbell and what better place to hone his craft as a rookie than playing alongside Campbell himself? Having a force like Campbell on the defensive line will also put Epenesa in favorable pass-rushing match-ups, and playing alongside guys like Derek Wolfe, Brandon Williams, and Matthew Judon will only ease the burden on the rookie.

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The offseason additions along the defensive line may mean less playing time for A.J. Epenesa early on, but he was at his most effective as a part-time player in sub-packages during the 2018 season at Iowa. While he may not burst on the scene with a 10-sack rookie season, being put in a similar role in Baltimore could allow him to flourish as a situational pass rusher as players like Pernell McPhee have done in the past.

As our own Richard Bradshaw highlighted in a recent scouting report of Epenesa, Baltimore also utilizes what is known as the “elephant rusher”; a role that has previously been filled by guys like McPhee and Za’Darious Smith. Epenesa could thrive in that kind of role, finding himself in favorable one-on-one match-ups where his raw strength can win out.

A.J. Epenesa can also provide some much-needed depth along the defensive line. Wolfe was a cunning and cost-efficient move that could pay great dividends in 2020 but has also played in all 16 games just three times in his eight-year career. Having a talented player that could take his place in a pinch only adds to Epenesa’s value. With Campbell set to turn 34 in September, having a player that can spell him at times and keep him fresh would also help keep the Ravens defensive line fresh and effective deep into the season.

Opting to address the edge in Round 1 could prove to be a financially wise decision for Baltimore, as A.J. Epenesa’s contract would come with a fifth-year option. The possibility to have a key piece in place for that additional year at a more palatable rate should also be enticing for a Ravens team that has seen middle-round pass rushers like McPhee, Smith, and Paul Kruger fly the coup for more money after their rookie deals expired.

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There should be plenty of solid options when the Baltimore Ravens goes on the clock on April 23rd, but A.J. Epenesa checks a lot of boxes and should be one of the top contenders to get the call if he’s still on the board.