NFL Scouting Combine Notebook: Did A.J. Epenesa Crater His Draft Stock?

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterMarch 1, 2020

NFL Scouting Combine Notebook: Did A.J. Epenesa Crater His Draft Stock?

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    Saturday was a huge night of workouts and drills for many defensive line, edge-rusher and linebacker prospects, but it was a disappointing night for one big name: Iowa's A.J. Epenesa, whose workout results fell well short of his billing and his high-first-round-pick expectations. 

    But this week was far from a total loss for Epenesa (pictured). This combine notebook kicks off by explaining why Epenesa's sluggish sprints and splits in Indianapolis shouldn't matter all that much. 

    Plus:

    • You know all about Auburn's Derrick Brown. But have you met his tag team partner/hype man Marlon Davidson?
    • Identical twins headline a big night for lesser-known prospects.
    • A shocking Bleacher Report exclusive: Clemson's Isaiah Simmons is good at football.  
    • Sharks!
    • Airplanes!

    And much, much more! 

A.J. Epenesa's 'Bad' Combine Workouts Don't Really Matter

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    David Banks/Associated Press

    If you think Iowa edge-rusher A.J. Epenesa had a bad combine, you may have been watching, but you probably weren't listening.

    Epenesa's workout results Saturday night, including a 5.04-second 40-yard dash with a 1.78-second 10-yard split (the split measures initial quickness, making it important for linemen) were not disastrous, but they were worrisome. Those are defensive tackle results, not elite edge-rusher results.

    Epenesa, who is 6'5", 275 pounds and recorded 20.5 sacks and eight forced fumbles over the past two seasons, was hoping to showcase the kind of athleticism that would make him a top-15 pick. But Epenesa, who sometimes looks a little stiff on tape, looked a little sluggish Saturday.

    That's what we saw. But what we heard during interviews with the offensive players who faced him was a very different story.

    Michigan left tackle Jon Runyan, who provides deeply technical insights into his opponents, said Epenesa was tied with Ohio State's Chase Young as the two toughest defenders he ever faced.

    "A.J. exploits the weakness of what I play," Runyan said. "I'm a vertical setter, and the weakness of a vertical set is what A.J. loves to do: bull rush with a one-armed stab. He's able to catch me leaning a lot, catch me off guard. Early in the [2019 Michigan vs. Iowa] game, the first three or four drives, I wasn't really keying on his shoulders. He started running downhill, and I wasn't able to get my hips down and react to the bull rush."

    Purdue tight end Brycen Hopkins also singled out Epenesa as one of the toughest defenders he ever faced, adding a most unusual compliment to his scouting report: "I thought he was a great player. He was physical, but at the same time he's a cool guy. He wasn't a jerk out there. ... So I thought he was a great player, great guy. He came off the ball with an explosive power."

    And then there's teammate Tristan Wirfs, one of the stars of Friday night's offensive line workouts. Wirfs didn't hesitate to name Epenesa as the toughest defender he ever faced. Sure, he may be a teensy bit biased, but players rarely single out teammates when answering "toughest opponent" questions. 

    "We had some battles," Wirfs said. "When I met with the Broncos, they said a scout was there [at Iowa practice] and I didn't lose to A.J. So I said, 'I'm glad you were there on that day.'"

    "It goes back and forth, me and him," Wirfs added. "He was one of my best friends on the team. We will try to help each other get better. If he sees something that he beat me on, he'll tell me what he saw. And when I beat him, I tell him what I saw."

    So Epenesa earned glowing endorsements from a first-round-caliber teammate and two of the guys who had to block him, and those were just the remarks we heard while making the interview rounds. If you don't believe Runyan, Hopkins and Wirfs, there's also the production across two seasons against major competition.

    And also there's the tape, which shows opponents redesigning their offenses to corral him. At one point against Minnesota, for example, Epenesa was chipped by the tight end before a route, and then chipped by a running back before a route, with the left tackle backing up to engage Epenesa after he worked his way through that whole bag of chips. (It's at the 2:09 mark on this cutup.)

    And then there's...a so-so workout in compression shorts.

    Epenesa is not J.J. Watt. He may have missed an opportunity Saturday to climb some draft boards. But when determining whether he can be a high-impact defensive end in the NFL, you are better off believing his opponents than believing a stopwatch. 

Prospect Spotlight: Derrick Brown and Marlon Davidson, Defensive Tackles, Auburn

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    Associated Press

    What they did

    Derrick Brown (pictured) is expected to be among the top 10 players selected in April's draft after an Auburn career that saw him do things like sack Joe Burrow by pretty much tossing his own lineman at him, turn a routine tackle into a WWE move and make an open-field tackle after running onto the field late.

    Teammate Marlon Davidson—6'3", 303 pounds—out-sacked Brown last year (6.5 to 4.0), outran him in Saturday's workouts (5.04 seconds to 5.16 seconds in the 40-yard dash, though Brown, at 6'5", 326 pounds, is 23 pounds heavier) and out-talked his more famous teammate by a mile in Thursday's media sessions.

                  

    What they said

    Here's Davidson with the quote of the combine about why he loves football: 

    "I can literally go out there and hit a man consistently and pound him, and the police won't come. That is the most enjoyable moment about ball: To just go out there and really abuse somebody, and they won't say nothing about it in the press or anything. I ain't in no headlines, in handcuffs, no mugshots, no nothing. I'm out here just physically abusing my man."

    (Note: Davidson was getting laughs from the crowd and leaning into the routine a little. This quote should not be interpreted to indicate that the jolly Davidson enjoys aggravated assault).

    As for Brown, he comes across as a man who is used to not getting a word in edgewise with Davidson around. Here's Bleacher Report's attempt to find out what other sports Brown played growing up:

    "Did you play other sports in high school? 'Yeah, I did: basketball.'"

    What position were you in basketball? 'Center.'

    How would you describe your game? 'Dominant.'"

    Hmm, maybe we should let Davidson describe Brown: "Derrick's goofy, but he's serious. He has his moments where he wants to play around and be a big teddy bear, but when it's time to play ball, it's time to play ball. ... He gets in one of those silent moods and just goes to work. But shoot, man, on the field, he's just a straight, pure animal."

                        

    What it means

    Brown's cone drills and testing numbers were overall rather weak, though he sure looked fluid when running the new "figure eight" and other position drills at 320 pounds. But don't sweat the details on a guy who had little to prove this week: Brown is what the NFL thinks he is, and that's bad news for quarterbacks.

    As for Davidson, Saturday's workouts should help him stand out after being a rotational player and second fiddle at Auburn. And his upbeat personality should be viewed as an asset by coaches who like their defenders to be a little ornery. Davidson projected as a middle- to late-round all-purpose lineman and special teamer (he blocked several kicks in college). Some teams may now see him as a little more. 

Prospect Spotlight: Derrek Tuszka, Edge-Rusher/Crop Duster, North Dakota State

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    Jeffrey McWhorter/Associated Press

    What he's done

    Derrek Tuszka was the Missouri Valley Conference Defender of the Year in 2019, recording 13.5 sacks and five pass breakups while leading the Bison to their third straight FCS championship. He was a five-year letterman in high school—tiny South Dakota schools are known to promote burly eighth graders to the varsity squad now and then—and a standout in basketball and track as well as football.

    Tuszka—6'4", 251 pounds—was one of Saturday night's standouts. He ran a 4.79-second sprint with an excellent 1.69-second 10-yard split and recorded a 33.5-inch vertical jump (one of the best results among linemen) and a fine 120-inch broad jump. His 6.87-second three-cone drill was the best result among this year's defensive linemen. He also added 24 bench press reps on Friday, another very solid result.

    Oh, and Tuszka also pilots airplanes.

                         

    What he said

    Tuszka on his favorite plane to fly: "I'd have to say a super cub. It's a small two-seater. Low and slow. You can't beat it. You can look at everything below you. If not that, then I would have to say a helicopter."

    Wait, he flies helicopters too? "I've had the opportunity to fly a couple of helicopters. The concept's pretty much the same. It takes a little bit of getting used to, but it's a blast."

    Tuszka started flying when the local crop duster took him for a spin on his birthday. He got his pilot's license at 18. He majors in crop and weed sciences ("it's not what you think he is," was his response to our dad jokes) and was planning a career in crop-dusting before the NFL became a real possibility. Now he has bigger plans.

    "I've tossed around the idea of going up to Alaska when I'm done with football to be a bush pilot. Growing up on a farm, in the middle of the country, I did a lot of hunting and fishing, so I feel like Alaska is gonna be the right fit for me eventually."

                    

    What it means

    On tape, Tuszka careens off the line of scrimmage, hits with a thud, can knife inside his blocker to get to the ball-carrier on running plays and flattens out quickly when pass-rushing from the outside. He bats down a lot of passes, which is both a testimony to his vertical hops and a useful indicator among analytics circles of his NFL potential. On the downside, he's easy to wire up when blocked and doesn't have a wide battery of pass-rush moves.

    Tuszka is precisely the sort of player who benefits the most from combine results: a mid-major standout with a "hustle guy" reputation who must prove he is on par athletically with major-program edge-rushers. Tuszka's performance Saturday night did just that.

    In other words, that career as an Alaskan bush pilot will have to wait a while. 

Prospect Spotlight: Bradlee Anae, Edge-Rusher/Shark Whisperer, Utah

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    What he's done

    Bradlee Anae is Utah's all-time sack leader with 29.5 sacks, 13 of them in his senior season. Anae also tore up Senior Bowl week practices and recorded three sacks in the game. His Saturday results were competitive, if unspectacular: a 4.93-second sprint (with a strong 1.69-second 10-yard split) at 6'3", 257 pounds. 

    Anae hails from Hawaii. His father, Brad, played in the USFL, his uncle Robert is an assistant football coach at the University of Virginia, two of his sisters were college volleyball standouts (Adora Anae was an All-American), and his hobbies include surfing, cliff jumping and swimming in shark-infested waters.

    Wait...swimming in shark-infested waters?

                 

    What he said

    So, you swim around with sharks, Bradlee? "I'm from the islands, so that's just one of the things I do," he said. "We just go out there, island boys, we dive in and see sharks. They're harmless. Unless it's a tiger shark. You gotta watch out for them."

    And the sharks, like, swim up to you? "Some of them. We're around them all the time."

    Just how big are these sharks? "Not too big. They're reef sharks. Two or three feet."

    And just how close have you gotten to a tiger shark? "I try not to be in the water with one. They get hungry, and they can't always tell a turtle from a human."

    Anae also talked about a highly dubious report out of Senior Bowl week that claimed scouts considered him a "meathead" because he was "slow to articulate his thoughts." Anae clapped back on Twitter: "Considering retirement after news of my meatheadedness circulating the scouting community," he posted. "Please keep me in your thoughts."

    Anae explained on Thursday that he was inspired by Joe Burrow's tongue-in-cheek response to the early-week small-hands controversy.

    We're here for prospects who combat anonymous scouting nonsense with humor.

              

    What it means

    Anae is tenacious on the field and was often unblockable in Senior Bowl practices. Flashier workout numbers would have been nice, but Anae checked all the boxes he needed to be a Day 2 pick for a team seeking a stand-up edge-rusher. 

    Oh, and Anae's opinions about the harmlessness of sharks are his own and do not represent the opinion of Bleacher Report or its writers. Thanks.

Beyond the Workouts

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    Bleacher Report's Combine Notebook takes you beyond the 40 times and drill results to determine how they will impact Saturday's defensive prospects in the upcoming draft.

    Khalil Davis, Defensive Tackle, Nebraska (pictured): 4.75-second 40 (1.66-second 10-yard split) at 308 pounds; 32 bench press reps. 

    Carlos Davis, Defensive Tackle, Nebraska: 4.82-second 40 (1.67-second 10-yard split) at 313 pounds; 27 bench press reps; 4.52-second 20-yard shuttle.

    Khalil and Carlos are identical twins with non-identical scouting reports. Khalil (eight sacks last season) is quicker and more technically sound, and he proved his athletic profile is superior to that of Carlos (four sacks last season), though both brothers posted remarkable workout numbers for interior linemen. 

    Fast splits, sprints and drills should move Khalil up to the third round of April's draft and guarantee that the less-accomplished Carlos is selected early on Day 3. Both may have pushed themselves ahead of Nebraska teammate Darrion Daniels, who didn't test nearly well Saturday and projects as a 1-technique run-plugger in the NFL.

                

    Willie Gay Jr., Linebacker, Mississippi State: 4.46-second 40, 39.5-inch vertical, 136-inch broad jump.

    Per Josh Norris of Rotoworld/NBC Sports, Gay's broad jump was the third-best result among linebackers since 2006. Jump results are used by teams as proxy numbers for a player's short-area explosiveness, and Gay is certainly explosive. He can redirect suddenly to elude a blocker or accelerate to deliver a jarring burst to the ball-carrier. Gay is also fast, but he's so frenetic that he overruns plays or takes flat angles to the ball-carrier, resulting in some lost foot races he should have won.

    With workout results like these, teams that already love Gay's hair-on-fire play style are likely to overlook all the technical errors and draft him on Day 2. 

               

    Justin Madubuike, Defensive Tackle, Texas A&M: 4.83-second sprint (1.74-second 10-yard split), 7.37-second three-cone drill.

    Madubuike is a quick-footed penetrator, so the impressive sprints and splits were more like box-checkers than surprises. Madubuike's most impressive combine numbers were his measurements: 293 pounds and 33½-inch arms for a guy who looks a little lean on the playing field. He proved he was big enough and sudden/explosive enough to make an impact as a 3-tech NFL tackle. 

           

    Jonathan Garvin, Edge-Rusher, Miami: 36-inch vertical jump, 125-inch broad jump, 34-inch arms.

    "Spider" Garvin followed a promising 2018 season with a disappointing 2019 campaign. This 2019 sizzle reel is illuminating for the wrong reasons: The video editor should not have needed routine plays against Bethune or sacks where he's the second defender to reach the quarterback to pad the video out to three minutes and 25 seconds. Outstanding length and leaping ability should help Garvin escape late-round obscurity and give him a chance to reclaim his 2018 potential. 

              

    James Smith-Williams, Defensive Line, NC State: 4.6-second 40-yard dash.

    Smith-Williams had a very Smith-Williams-like combine: He topped all linemen and edge-rushers in the sprint but then injured his elbow during the vertical jump. Smith-Williams is an athletic marvel and a scholar-athlete who graduated early and interned with IBM, but he has the injury history of a ballistics dummy. He returned to the field to finish his workouts and performed well, but gosh, what a "buyer beware" sign.    

NFL News and Notes

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    Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

    Cowboys plan to let Byron Jones hit the free-agent market, per NFL.com's Ian Rapoport.

    The Cowboys will keep shedding second-tier stars for cap reasons as long as their negotiating policy with their top-tier stars is to procrastinate until the last second and then hand over a blank checkbook.

              

    Tony Romo signs for $17 million per year with CBS. 

    Maybe the Cowboys can use some of that cap space they are saving to give Jason Witten $17 million so he won't be a color commentator!

                

    Saints receiver Michael Thomas tweets that players should reject the new CBA proposal because Romo is "making more than 90% of the players."

    Ah. So some players think they should hold out until, say, average salaries reach $17 million per year? Cool cool cool. (Logs off and begins furiously studying soccer to prepare for 2021 NFL lockout.)

             

    Washington coach Ron Rivera says the team is in "a good place" regarding contract/trade negotiations with disgruntled left tackle Trent Williams. 

    It's Season 1 of The Good Place, to be exact. Wait until Rivera finds out who Dan Snyder turns out to be in the twist ending. 

            

    Per Aaron Wilson of the Houston Chronicle, Texans tackle Laremy Tunsil may be seeking $19 million to $20 million per year.

    That's gonna make Bill O'Brien so mad that he trades Tunsil to the Seahawks for a third-round pick and sends Washington two first-rounders (in 2022 and 2023) for Trent Williams. This cycle will continue until the Texans organization exists entirely of O'Brien sitting in an empty office with a blank depth chart and a J.J. Watt fathead on the wall. 

                

    Barry Sanders becomes a political meme after the internet mistakes old No. 20 Sanders jerseys for Bernie Sanders apparel.

    Your weekly reminder that the Detroit Lions have not been culturally relevant for 25 years.

Isaiah Simmons Is Awesome. That's It. That's the Content.

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    What he did

    Simmons crushed the combine: a 4.39-second 40, 39-inch vertical, 132-inch broad jump, impressive measurements (6'4", 238 lbs, 33⅜" arms) and an affable, engaging media session that speaks well of how he comes across when meeting with teams. It was as dazzling as it was completely predictable.

              

    What he said

    Simmons, out of Clemson, spent much of Thursday's media appearance patiently answering questions about the fact that he's a linebacker/safety/cornerback/edge-rusher. Traditionally, all of those slashes would classify him as a "man without a position" in the NFL. "I think it's really beneficial for me," he said. "I know years ago it wasn't good to be a positionless guy. But now it's become a benefit for me just because of all the versatility I'll be able to do: play linebacker, play safety; whatever it is, I feel like it just helps me out."

    Here's a more pressing question: Who won that famous footrace between Simmons and running back/teammate (and future combine sensation) Travis Etienne? "I'll be honest, he got me on the lean on that one," Simmons said. "But after that we raced in the 40 and I won, but that's not on tape. He might not admit that, but everybody there knows I won that, and I won it clear as day."

    "Travis Etienne, when you see this, just know I'm ready for Round 3. The tiebreaker. You know where to find me. You've got my number."

    Just get someone who can hold a camera steady to film it, fellas.

              

    What it means

    I could break out the combine notebook whiteboard and explain that the "positionless" Simmons can be used the ways Tyrann Mathieu, Derwin James and Minkah Fitzpatrick are used in modern NFL defenses, but you probably figured all of that out by now. 

    Instead, I will leave you with this: Simmons is the most fun-to-watch defender I have ever studied. Even the Honey Badger didn't look as effortless when sliding around positions as Simmons does. Watching his scouting film is like watching four or five different players, all of whom are top prospects.  

    Simmons is going to be a great defender. Everything else is just nitpicking and filler.