BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — A.J. Epenesa might not know much about Buffalo yet, though the Iowa defensive end is sure familiar with Bills quarterback Josh Allen.
Drafted by the Bills with the 54th pick on Friday, Epenesa began to laugh when reminded how his first college career sack came against Allen three years ago when Wyoming opened its season at Iowa in a 24-3 win by the Hawkeyes.
“Yeah, it’s not going to be an awkward thing,” Epenesa said, referring to his eventual re-introduction with the Bills third-year starter. “He’s a great guy from what I heard, and he’s a great quarterback … So, I’m really excited to be on the same team as him.”
A day after sitting out the first round of the NFL draft, the Bills addressed their defensive pass-rush and offensive rushing needs with their second- and third-round picks.
Listed at 6-foot-5 and 275 pounds, Epenesa led the Big Ten with 10 1/2 sacks as a junior last season. The Bills then used the 86th pick to choose Utah running back Zack Moss, who set numerous career school records and led the Pac-12 with 15 touchdowns and 1,416 yards rushing to earn the conference player of the year honors.
Epenesa’s selection was Buffalo’s first of the draft after the Bills traded four picks, including their first-rounder (22nd overall), to acquire receiver Stefon Diggs from Minnesota last month.
Having addressed many of Buffalo’s immediate needs in free agency and with Diggs’ addition, general manager Brandon Beane balanced his approach to the draft between selecting the best player available with an eye on need.
Epenesa being available at No. 54 made Beane's decision an easy one after the player was initially projected to be a late first-round or early second-round pick.
“I don't know exactly why he fell. I assume he fell because of his 40 time and some people knocked him a little bit on that,” Beane said, referring to Epenesa being timed a a relatively slow 5.04 seconds in the 40-yard dash at the NFL's scouting combine. “But you know how I don't care about that stuff. I’m looking for football players. And he’s a damn good football player.”
Upgrading the pass rush was considered a partial need for Buffalo, given that returning starters Jerry Hughes and Trent Murphy will both be 30 or older before the end of this year.
Epenesa was a three-year starter at Iowa who had 26 1/2 sacks and forced nine fumbles in 37 career games. He joins a Bills defense that lost backup defensive end Shaq Lawson in free agency last month. The Bills did address Lawson’s departure by signing Mario Addison in free agency.
As for Moss, Beane said he had a few antsy moments, and even considered trading up as many as seven spots to take the running back before it became evident he would be available.
At 5-foot-9 and 205 pounds, Moss has the potential to play a complementary role to Devin Singletary, who supplanted LeSean McCoy and Frank Gore to become the Bills starter last season.
Moss has NFL ties, with his cousins being former receivers Santana and Sinorice Moss. He initially elected to follow in their footsteps by committing to play college at Miami before choosing Utah.
Barring trades, Buffalo had five picks remaining over the final four rounds Saturday, with their next coming at No. 128. With many of Buffalo's positions set, Beane will be targeting players with versatility and having the potential to fill special team roles.
Expectations are on the rise in Buffalo. A majority of the roster returns intact from a team coming off a 10-6 finish that qualified the Bills for the playoffs for the second time in three years.
The continuity has led to a belief of the Bills being in a prime position to challenge the New England Patriots for the AFC East title this season. The Patriots, who have won 11 straight division titles and 17 of the past 19, are suddenly in flux with quarterback Tom Brady leaving for Tampa Bay.
Beane certainly appears to be taking an all-in approach, given his bold move to acquire Diggs and address what he considered the team’s biggest offseason priority. Diggs provides the Allen-led offense a trio of proven receivers, rounded out by John Brown and Cole Beasley.
Beane spent free agency shoring up needs on a defense that’s been among the NFL’s stingiest over the past two years. The Bills allowed the third-fewest yards in the league last season, a year after ranking second.
The offense remains the team’s most pressing concern. It’s a unit that finished 24th among NFL teams in yards gained, 26th in yards passing and 23rd in points. Buffalo scored 20 or fewer points 11 times last season, including a 22-19 overtime wild-card loss at Houston.
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