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A.J. Epenesa and DaQuan Jones explain why new coaches, new opportunities played a key role in their decisions to return to Buffalo

Buffalo Bills Week 18 Practice, Regular Season, January 04, 2024 at 1 Bills Drive.
Buffalo Bills Week 18 Practice, Regular Season, January 04, 2024 at 1 Bills Drive.

Buffalo signed a couple familiar faces back to their defensive line during the first week of free agency.

Defensive end A.J. Epenesa was drafted by the Bills in 2020 and re-signed with Buffalo on a two-year deal. Defensive tackle DaQuan Jones came to Buffalo in 2022 and is staying with the Bills for two more seasons.

Epenesa, who saw career high numbers in 2023, said making the decision to remain in Buffalo was easy due to the success they've had in the past and the hope for more in the future.

"There's a lot of success out there to be had, and it's hard to leave such a great organization," Epenesa said. "They do a lot of things right up there in Buffalo and having a great quarterback like 17, it's hard to leave. And there's just a lot of great people around there that I've got a lot of good connections with. So, I'm really looking forward to being back."

Epenesa finished the 2023 season ranking second among all defensive linemen with eight passes defensed. The DE also became only the third defensive lineman in Bills history with multiple interceptions in a season, one of which he returned for a touchdown. He had career highs in passes defensed (8), interceptions (2) and tackles (20) and tied career highs in sacks (6.5) and tackles for loss (7).  

In terms of goals for the upcoming season, Epenesa wants to become a player that the coaching staff can depend on.

"I want to earn a starting spot on the defensive line and continue progressing my game with stats, whether that be more sacks, more snaps and just overall production," Epenesa said. "So, I'm ready for more, and I'm looking forward to taking on more responsibilities."

While Jones missed most of the season due to a pec injury, the DT couldn't imagine going anywhere else due to his relationships with the defensive line and coaching staff.

"It came down to just being comfortable in the system," Jones shared. "I really do enjoy how coach Sean McDermott coaches a defense and how we're able to play up front and kind of just going and attacking, I really enjoy that. And really two, the d-line room is so special. I really love those guys.

"I know a lot of guys aren't coming back but the players that are there, Ed (Oliver), Greg (Rousseau), signing back A.J. (Epenesa), Von (Miller), I'm so excited, having Kameron (Cline) there too, Eli (Ankou). Being there to work with those guys again and kind of keep doing what we've been doing and really trying to get over that hump, I'm looking forward to that challenge."

Even though Jones only played in seven games in 2023, he saw a career high in sacks per game and believed he was playing his best football yet.

"I'm kind of peaking as far as my body and my mind are playing as one out there on the field, and kind of just seeing the game in a whole different way," Jones said. "I feel like that's crazy how in year 10 that clicked for me."

The DT has started and played in 23 games with the Bills in two seasons and recorded 54 tackles, seven tackles for loss, four and a half sacks, 16 quarterback hits and one fumble recovery.

While Epenesa and Jones bring cohesiveness to the unit, the defensive staff is stacked with coaches who will debut in new roles in 2024. The Bills hired Bobby Babich, former linebackers coach, as their defensive coordinator. And, after former defensive line coach Eric Washington joined the Bears staff, Buffalo promoted assistant defensive line coach Marcus West to defensive line coach.

"He really brings that energy every day," Epenesa said of Babich. "He's a guy we all love, we all care about. He has a lot of passion for us as players and this organization the Buffalo Bills. So with that love and passion and with his intensity and his attention to detail, we'll have a lot of success under him."

Babich has coached multiple position groups since being hired by Buffalo in 2017. The new defensive coordinator is known for getting the best out of his players as he's helped develop several players like safeties Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde.

In 2023, The DC also coached a linebackers unit that had a first-year starter at MLB who had a lot of success. Terrel Bernard became only the third NFL player since 1982 to record at least six sacks, three interceptions and three fumble recoveries in his first season as a leader of the defense.

West helped coach a defense that had the fourth-most sacks (54) and third-highest pressure rate (8.4% according to Trumedia). Under West, more than just Epenesa and Jones saw increases in production levels. Ed Oliver also saw several career highs—nine and a half sacks, 51 tackles, 14 tackles for loss, 16 quarterback hits, 1 interception. He originally joined the staff in 2022.

"(He will) let us have our personality when we get out there and play and just really let us be us," Epenesa. "He's gonna kind of let the dogs out, let us be free a little bit and just let us get out."

"I feel like Marcus is a very smart man in how he approaches the game," Jones shared. "He takes it a step further as far as understanding what you're gonna get and really knowing situational football."

Jones and Epenesa return to a defense that ranked fourth best in points allowed per game (18.3), third in takeaways (30), sixth in quarterback hits (110) and ninth in total yards allowed per game (307.2).

Alongside players like Von Miller, Ed Oliver and Greg Rousseau, the two are hoping to grow as a group ahead of the 2024 season.

"We're trending upwards as a defensive line, all of us players, individually and as a unit," Epenesa said. "I can just see us continuing that, just keeping those strides."

"I think it's gonna be even more special," Jones said of the upcoming season. "I think me and Ed's (Oliver) relationship is going to go to another level on the field, being able to see what worked for us and what didn't work for us and just continuing to build on what actually works."

Epenesa is also looking forward to being back with teammate Greg Rousseau.

"Me and him have built a really good friendship, a really good bond," Epenesa said. "I love being on the field with him. He's an amazing football player and I'm looking forward to what else we can do and what else we can accomplish."

Jones and Epenesa understand the defense will look different next season due to releases, free agent departures and new signings but believe the coaches know what needs to be done to get the group ready to play.

"It's gonna be tough to overcome that but at the same time, it's always the next man up," Jones said. "And every year is a new year and guys come in and it's going to be another man's opportunity to go out there and shine. I think that with the coaches we have, the guys will be ready to play."

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