Could the Bills trade AJ Epenesa during the draft?
Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve discussed the possibility of the Buffalo Bills trading OL Cody Ford and RB Zack Moss in order to move up in this year’s draft. While those are still possibilities, one other player who we haven’t heard much about this offseason that could also be on the trade block is DE AJ Epenesa.
Epenesa is going into his third season after being drafted 54th overall in 2020 from the University of Iowa. In his first two seasons with the Bills, he’s totaled just 28 tackles and 2.5 sacks in 28 games played.
At first, I really didn’t think Buffalo would consider trading these three players. In fact, I even wrote a few weeks ago how I thought that the Bills want to keep developing them since they’re still young and were all high draft picks within the organization – Ford was selected in the second round (38th overall) of the 2019 draft, Epenesa was the team’s second-round pick the following year, and then Moss was drafted right after Epenesa in the third round (86th overall). But, ever since I saw this tweet at the end of last month, it’s gotten me thinking…
The first name that I thought of was Tremaine Edmunds, who is going into a contract year. However, that is one name who I said the Bills won’t trade and I stand firm in that. I just cannot see a Super Bowl favorite trading away their starting middle linebacker and creating a huge hole in their lineup. Not to mention, expecting a rookie to come in, learn all the plays (and possibly call them), and then execute them better than Edmunds, all within a span of a few months.
But I am really warming up to the idea of trading away Ford, Moss, and/or Epenesa in order to move up in this year’s draft. The Buffalo Bills are in absolute win-now mode.
Now, you might be thinking that they aren’t “veteran” players since they’re all 25 years old or younger. However, technically, a player is considered a veteran after just one season. (Whenever I think of a veteran, I always think of someone who has played five or more seasons. But then I have to remind myself that you don’t have to be in the league that long to be considered a vet. And besides, the Bills don’t have any tradeable players who have been in the league for 5+ years. So by process of elimination, I was left with Ford, Moss and Epenesa.)
The two potential trades that I have come up with so far are…
|Teams||Picks (Round)/Players Received|
|Buffalo Bills||#7 (1st)|
|New York Giants||#25 (1st), 2023 1st, OG Cody Ford|
|Teams||Picks (Round)/Players Received|
|Buffalo Bills||#124 (4th)|
|Philadelphia Eagles||RB Zack Moss, 2024 6th|
Starting with Moss, I would say he has the smallest role out of the three now after the Bills signed Duke Johnson and have been linked to many top running backs in the draft. So, rather than making him a healthy inactive every week or trying to sporadically fit him into the lineup throughout the year because of his pass protection abilities, why not try to get something for him? As a result, I got UCLA slot receiver and return specialist Kyle Philips at 124 before the Patriots could’ve (potentially) taken him at 127.
As for Ford, he proved last year that he can be a liability when on the field, especially during the Jacksonville game. (PFF gave him a grade of 46.4 for the 2021 season.) While new OL coach Aaron Kromer could get Ford back to being a mauler, why not continue upgrading at that position while also improving your draft position? The problem with that though is the Giants (Joe Schoen, Brian Daboll, and Bobby Johnson) know first-hand what kind of a player Ford is and may not think the Bills’ offer is enough, especially if it’s the difference between drafting CB Sauce Gardner or not. (For what it’s worth, the PFF draft simulator said that the Giants would almost definitely accept this trade.)
So, if the Giants do turn down the trade involving Ford, what’s plan B? Enter AJ Epenesa.
I think the likeliness of the trade definitely increases if Epenesa is part of the package rather than Ford. I don’t want to put a number on the percent increase though because, based on PFF’s logic, the Giants need a ton of help on their offensive line. Either way, I think Epenesa presents more trade value than Ford.
The 6’6”, 260 pound pass rusher still has a lot of untapped potential. Epenesa hasn’t had the easiest transition into the NFL to say the least. He came into the league during the remote-friendly covid year, making it harder for him to learn the defense and earn playing time. On top of that, he’s tried to figure out the right body composition that suites both him and the Bills. (He weighed 280 pounds coming out of college, slimmed down to 245 his rookie year to become quicker off the edge, but then put 15 pounds back on last offseason.)
There’s a lot to like in AJ Epenesa. But, if he’s the key to trading up for Gardner at seven, I think you have to go for it. CB2 is a glaring hole right now while the Bills have loaded up on their defensive line this offseason.
Current DE Depth Chart
|LDE||G. Rousseau||A. Epenesa||M. Love|
|RDE||V. Miller||S. Lawson||B. Basham|
Considering how much Greg Rousseau improved last year, and with the additions of Shaq Lawson and some guy named Von Miller, Epenesa’s playing time already seems in doubt. So all sides could potentially win this trade. The Bills get a lockdown cornerback to pair with Tre White. The Giants come out with two first-round picks this year, two next year and a young pass rusher. And AJ Epenesa gets a fresh start with a better chance of getting more playing time.
Let’s say the Bills pull off this trade. That leaves an open spot at defensive end. They could draft one and continue to build for the future, but that kind of defeats the purpose of trading away Epenesa. They could also sign or acquire a veteran now that they have almost $10 million in cap space. But I would do neither and, rather, re-sign the longest-tenured Buffalo Bill: Jerry Hughes.
After acquiring the former first-round pick from the Indianapolis Colts in 2013, Hughes is now fourth on the Bills’ all-time sacks list with 53 – only 8.5 behind Phil Hansen for third in franchise history. His best seasons came in 2013 and 2014 when he had 10 sacks each season. However, his numbers have fallen off the last few years, as he only had 4.5 sacks in 2019 and 2020 and then just two sacks and 18 tackles in 17 games last season.
Ironically though, Jerry Hughes’ pressure rate is still among the best in the league. PFF gave him an overall grade of 71.1 for 2021, while Epenesa got a 63.3.
Looking at his sack and tackle production, it may seem as though the 33-year old is running out of steam, but I think bringing Hughes back could be a sneaky good move. When Jerry Hughes had his best seasons, he was playing next to Kyle Williams, Marcell Dareus, and Mario Williams. Having a stacked defensive line like that overwhelmed opposing offensive linemen and allowed Hughes to get free. I see a similar situation with the 2022 Bills and their revamped d-line.
I think that playing with Von Miller could revitalize Hughes’ career, just like playing with Mario Williams did when he got to Buffalo. Teams will pay so much attention to Miller that guys like Hughes should be able to get after the quarterback much easier. This past season, Hughes and 34-year old Mario Addison had to carry the load up front while the young guys developed. I think that was too much to ask for two veterans on the back end of their careers.
Additionally, Jerry Hughes has turned into a fan-favorite and a locker room leader. He and his wife seem to like living in Buffalo as they have played a big part in our community. Hughes said he wants to keep playing and competing for championships. I don’t want to put words in his mouth, but I would think he wants to run it back one more time in Buffalo. It only seems right that the Bills let him finish off what he started by signing him to a cheap veteran minimum deal. Brandon Beane has said he’s open to re-signing him as long as it’s “a fit for (him) and us”. Hughes’ market value on Spotrac is $3.3 million. This is doable, even with saving money for the draft class and potentially signing a veteran corner like Joe Haden or Xavier Rhodes.
If the Buffalo Bills made these moves, the following could be their new depth chart at DE:
|LDE||J. Hughes||G. Rousseau||M. Love|
|RDE||V. Miller||S. Lawson||B. Basham|
Essentially, this scenario boils down to choosing between Sauce Gardner and Jerry Hughes or AJ Epenesa and next year’s first-round pick – which option would you prefer? Coming up with scenarios like this, and making the hard business decisions, can be the difference between being conference champions and league champions.
We will soon see if Zig Fracassi’s tweet had any substance to it.