Falcons’ search for pass-rush help could take them to Iowa

LSU linebacker K’Lavon Chaisson talks about what separates him from other prospects at the NFL Scouting Combine. (Video by D. Orlando Ledbetter/AJC)

In the 1990s, while a young Thomas Dimitroff was working on the grounds crew of the Cleveland Browns, weighing his career options, Kirk Ferentz was the offensive line coach on Bill Belichick’s staff.

Almost 25 years later, their paths are set up to intersect during the pre-draft process and the exchange could possibly alter the future of the Falcons franchise.

The Falcons, in their never-ending quest to find a pass rusher, will talk to Ferentz about one of players at Iowa, defensive end A.J. Epenesa.

“Coach Ferentz is obviously a great football coach,” said Dimitroff, the Falcons’ general manager. “He’s got a great mind. He’s creative with how he uses his players. He’s very direct with them. He holds them accountable. He’s very discipline. That shows itself when they come into the league. They are ready.”

The Hawkeyes are better known for putting out rugged offensive linemen.

“We always say that the Iowa players are pro-ready,” Dimitroff said.

Because Ferentz maximizes the talent on his teams, projecting how the Hawkeyes will play in the NFL could be tricky.

“Sometimes, you look at them and you go where is the upside, (because) you know they have gotten the most out of them at Iowa because of the way coach Ferentz approaches it,” Dimitroff said. “You know that you’re going to have a solid football player at the very least and a guy that is going to play in the league for a long time.”

To improve in the trenches, getting an Iowa player normally is a good place to start.

“It’s important to have your players ready,” Dimitroff said. “It’s difficult nowadays on the offensive and defensive line to bring in guys and they are ready. That’s one of the programs where they are going to be more ready than not.”

The Falcons have said they don’t plan to re-sign defensive end Vic Beasley. Also, defensive end Adrian Clayborn (another former Iowa Hawkeye) and defensive tackles Tyeler Davison and Jack Crawford are set to become free agents.

The Falcons, who are counting on Takk McKinley to recover from his latest shoulder surgery, are thin behind defensive tackle Grady Jarrett along the defensive line.

Epenesa could potentially help. He had 11.5 sacks, 14.5 tackles for loss and four forced turnovers last season. He was named the defensive MVP of the Holiday Bowl.

“I’m not going into specifics, but you will have some opportunity to have some good (rush linebackers or defensive ends),” Dimitroff said when asked about Epenesa. “Those guys (from the Big Ten) are hard-nosed, gritty football players who get it done. I think that’s a big thing.”

Epenesa did most of his work in the Big Ten shadow of Ohio State defensive end Chase Young, a projected top-five pick.

“You watch those guys over the years, sometimes they are not the more flashy of types, but you can get guys who really produce,” Dimitroff said. “We’ve seen that year-in and year-out.”

While most don’t see this as a good draft for pass-rushers, Dimitroff believes that there are some “viable candidates” through the first, second and third rounds of the draft.

“I want to show them, there have been some things out there that I might be slow or not explosive,” said Epenesa, who measured 6-foot-5 1/8 and weighed in at 275 pounds at the combine. “I just want to kind of show that I am not slow and that I am explosive. I just want to prove people that doubt me wrong. I just want to run fast, I want to jump high and show what I can do.”

Epenesa has studied the moves of Chicago Bears sackmaster Khalil Mack and is fond of Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt.

“I’ve seen him throw some people around by using his speed and sticking his arm out there and getting in (their) chest,” Epenesa said of Mack. “He’s able to move people.”

Watt, like Epenesa, played in the Big Ten.

“One player I just love watching is J.J. Watt because he’s a bigger guy as well,” Epenesa said. “He’s not your typical slim, shredded edge (rusher). He’s able to rush up the edge with some speed. He’s able to rush inside.”

Epenesa has some ties to the Falcons.

“Adrian Clayborn is a huge Iowa guy,” Epenesa said. “He’s a legend. My first cousin Jacob Tuioti-Mariner plays for the Falcons. ... His mom and my dad are brother and sister. I grew up with him. It would be great to have the opportunity to play with him after growing up together.”

LSU pass rusher K’Lavon Chaisson, who interviewed with Dimitroff, coach Dan Quinn and the defensive line coaches,  was measured at 6-3 and 254 pounds. He’s a bigger version of Beasley and is listed as a linebacker.

“When you hire somebody, do you want somebody who speaks one language?” Chaisson said. “Or do you want somebody who speaks three languages? I speak three languages. I do pass rush. I can drop in coverage. I can cover anybody you want me to cover and I can play the run.”

Chaisson believes he can hold up in the run game.

“No offensive linemen has ever just moved me off the ball,” Chaisson said. “I feel that makes me more dimensional and a better value than anybody else in the draft.”

Quinn, a former defensive line coach, has been a long-time proponent of having a strong pass rush.

“I think that’s one topic we’ll talk about in ’20 and ’25, and probably in ’30 and ’35,” Quinn said. “And the reason being is there are a couple of positions you better always have enough. That’s the pass-rushing guys.”

Iowa also has a potential guard candidate in Tristan Wirfs, the rare freshman starter for the Hawkeyes. Wirfs, who’s 6-4 and 320 pounds, played mostly tackle in college, but projects to right tackle or guard in the NFL.

“On the offensive line, you better dig that way, too, because of the volume of them,” Quinn said. “Some players are going to plug in and play.

“We did a little bit of that this year. And some are going to be building for tomorrow and for the next one. How can we develop them?”

Iowa’s Pro Day has been held in late March over the past few years.

Dimitroff and Ferentz will have some time to catch up and exchange notes at this year’s event.

Iowa defensive lineman A.J. Epenesa speaks at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis. (Video by D. Orlando Ledbetter/AJC)

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