The Buccaneers are undergoing a big defensive transition this offseason, with new coordinator Todd Bowles coming in. He figures to run a 3-4 base defense, but there will be a variety of looks regardless. Tampa Bay already started adding and subtracting players during the first big rush of free agency in March, but that process will definitely continue later this month during the NFL Draft.
The team is expected to address the defensive side of the ball with the No. 5 overall pick. But if linebacker Devin White does end up being the pick, the Bucs might look to select some defensive line help at the top of the second round. With that as a possibility, let’s take a look at Notre Dame lineman Jerry Tillery, who could still be around at pick No. 39.
Jerry Tillery’s Career
After a strong high school career in Louisiana, Tillery headed to South Bend as a four-star recruit, originally to play offensive tackle. However, he switched to defensive tackle and played in all 12 regular season games (three starts) as a freshman. He was suspended for the Fiesta Bowl that year for a violation of team rules. He saw the field even more in 2016, starting 11 games and playing in 12. He finished with 37 tackles, five quarterback hurries and three tackles for loss. However, he had on-field issues — he was seen kicking and stepping on opponents in a game against USC.
He upped his production in his junior year, putting up 56 tackles (nine for loss), 4.5 sacks and 11 quarterback hurries. He started all 13 games for the Fighting Irish, and also had a clean year conduct-wise. Then, as a senior in 2018, Tillery really emerged as a top player. He dropped down to 30 tackles, but picked up a team-high eight sacks and three forced fumbles. He had five quarterback hurries, and 10.5 of his tackles went for a loss. At the end of the year, he was named a second-team All-American.
Tillery’s size and build make him crazy intriguing as a prospect, especially as a 3-4 defensive end type. He’s between 6-foot-6 and 6-foot-7, weighing in at 295 pounds. His arm length, wing span and hand size are all quite impressive as well.
Tillery has a lot of power already, but likely hasn’t even reached his full potential in that regard. If he gets bigger and stronger, he’ll be even more disruptive as a pass-rusher. He is a sound tackler and has solid speed for someone at his position with his build. His versatility is also a huge help, as some see him in a 3-4 end role while others like him as a 4-3 three-technique guy. Having a guy that fits into whatever you’re running is obviously a plus. Regardless of the scheme, he can flat-out play.
There are concerns with Tillery’s block recognition and overall consistency. His extensive profile on The Draft Network takes a deeper look at those issues, while also pointing out that there are some “lapses with his leverage” as a result of focusing too much on the backfield and getting pushed out of gaps.
Most of Tillery’s weaknesses seem fixable at the NFL level, and he’s already come a long way in terms of consistency. Where more concerns lie, though, are with his character. Of course, every team checks out these “character issues” before the draft, but it’s worth noting that he does have some red flags.
As mentioned above, Tillery was suspended for Notre Dame’s bowl game his freshman year and had instances of kicking and stepping on players the next year. His profile on The Draft Network also mentions a Twitter rant in 2016 in which he “indirectly suggested” that Notre Dame should replace its head coach with Les Miles. On top of those instances, it has been said that Tillery had effort problems in the past, though they have apparently disappeared since.
While it’s worth mentioning these potential red flags, it’s also worth noting that there haven’t really been any issues with him in the last two years. All signs point to him being more mature and more dialed-in as a football player.
Why The Buccaneers Need Him
Simply put, the Bucs need defensive line help. Gerald McCoy’s future with the team is still unclear, but even getting past that, Tampa Bay is going through a transformation up front. 2018 first-rounder Vita Vea has the middle locked down for the foreseeable future, but what the team plans on doing on the outside remains to be seen. Of course, Jason Pierre-Paul, Carl Nassib and Noah Spence are still around, but how they fit into the new scheme and its varying looks will determine how the rest of the group shakes out. Adding Tillery, who can play wherever he’s needed, could clear some things up for Tampa Bay. Not only could it solve some of the questions for 2019, but it would obviously be a longer-term solution as long as everything pans out.
Will It Happen?
It’s probably unlikely, as Tillery’s 2018 season helped his draft stock considerably. As long as his character concerns checks out, it wouldn’t be the least bit surprising to see him go in the back half of the first round. Plus, even if he’s there when the Bucs pick in the second round, he’ll likely only be an option if the team didn’t select a defensive lineman in the first round. Seeing Tampa Bay double up on linemen in the first two rounds, to me, would be somewhat of a shock.