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Leading up to the 2019 NFL draft, which starts April 25, Yahoo Sports will count down our top 100 overall prospects. We’ll count them down 10 at a time, followed by profiles on our top 30 overall players.
25. Notre Dame DL Jerry Tillery
6-foot-6, 295 pounds
Key stat: Over the past 20 NFL scouting combines, there have been 303 players who measured 6-6 or taller and who weighed at least 290 pounds. Tillery is the only one of those participants who registered a 40-yard dash time faster than 4.95 seconds (Tillery ran a 4.93), 20-yard shuttle times faster than 4.35 (4.33) and a broad jump of 115 inches or longer.
The skinny: A top-rated offensive line recruit out of Shreveport, Louisiana, Tillery not only left SEC country to make the move north to South Bend, but he also switched positions early on. The Irish converted him to the defensive line and immediately thrust him into action in 2015, starting three of the 12 games he played as a reserve. He was suspended for the Fiesta Bowl vs. Ohio State for violating an undisclosed team rule. Tillery started 11 of the 12 games he played in 2016, notching 37 tackles (three for losses) and had one sack.
In 2017, Tillery enjoyed his breakout season, starting all 13 games and collecting nine tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks. Last season as a senior, he was named AP second-team All-America with 10.5 tackles for loss, eight sacks, three forced fumbles and two blocked kicks in his 13 starts. Tillery, who turns 23 in October, sat out the Senior Bowl with a shoulder injury before turning in a strong combine performance.
Upside: Raw talent is considerable. Outstanding testing scores at the NFL scouting combine. Rare traits and upside. With good coaching and development, Tillery could be a force inside in what remains a big man’s game. Has the size, athletic traits and nastiness to put it all together for a Pro Bowl-caliber prospect. Moves with ease and can win with a combination of athleticism, strength and technique. Draws double teams and finds ways to defeat or stalemate them effectively.
Made a tackle for loss on the first snap from scrimmage against Stanford, which kickstarted one of the most dominant individual performances by a defender in the 2018 college football season. Tillery finished with six tackles, four sacks (all in the final 31 game minutes), a forced fumble and three pressures against a Stanford offense that allowed only 20 sacks in its other 12 games. The entire performance is worth viewing:
Will defeat cut-block attempts with his arm length, balance and power. Uses an effective long-arm rush, even against tackles, and takes good paths to the quarterback. Has massive hands (10 5/8 inches) and good arm length (34 1/4 inches) to disengage and disrupt. Also has an effective club move he flashed in the games we watched. Can jar even stout interior blockers with a potent punch and leave them on their heels. Can play an ornery brand of ball when he wants to – doesn’t mind getting his hands dirty.
Lines up everywhere – over the center, guard or tackle, and on both sides of the line, too. Might look like a classic 3-4 end but appears to fit just about every system. Has the short-area burst and quickness to do this in the NFL for a multiple-front defense. Earns a lot of “wins” that don’t necessarily show up in the box score. Occasionally dropped into coverage as a changeup look and even was used a few snaps as a QB spy, which is rare for such a massive player. Sources inside the program said Tillery embraced more of a leadership role his final season. Played hurt as a senior – fought through the final eight games with a torn labrum in his right shoulder.
Downside: Snap-to-snap and game-to-game consistency is lacking. With his mass, power and athleticism, Tillery could have dominated more. Has powerful hands but doesn’t always use them to the best of his ability – had three forced fumbles as a senior but only one in three years before that. Never credited with a pass deflection in four seasons despite great length (only two ball deflections in his career came as s senior: blocked extra-point tries vs. Florida State and Clemson). Sack production nonexistent early in his career (one sack in his first two seasons) before upticks final two years. Missed some chances for plays in the backfield with one-arm tackle attempts. Still could add a little more girth and power over time (although those are hardly major concerns).
Opens up his chest to blockers and gives them a huge target. Gets tall in his stance and will lose balance moving laterally. Will run himself out of plays or get spun around. On the ground too often for such a powerful player and quality athlete. Suspended for bowl game as a freshman and battled immaturity early in his career. Toned things down a bit in his final season but occasionally was guilty early in his career of some plays that opponents might have deemed “dirty” or after the whistle – see USC game in 2016, when he was seen stepping on one Trojans player’s leg and kicking another.
Some NFL teams have questioned Tillery’s commitment to the game and whether he has the glass-eater mentality to be great. Might need urging and motivating from demanding position coach. Personality said to be a little “different” in meetings with NFL evaluators, although none of the teams we spoke to about Tillery suggested that it would be a reason to move him down their boards or as a reason not to draft him.
Best-suited destination There isn’t a team in the NFL that couldn’t upgrade its front with a talent such as Tillery. The questions for his landing spot will come down to value and whether the club feels it can properly harness his enormous upside. Among the teams that could most be interested in his services include the Philadelphia Eagles, Tennessee Titans, Pittsburgh Steelers, New England Patriots, Los Angeles Chargers, Indianapolis Colts, New Orleans Saints, Cincinnati Bengals, Green Bay Packers, Baltimore Ravens and Oakland Raiders.
Fun fact: Tillery is quite the Renaissance man, it seems. When he was 8 years old, he taught himself to write with his left hand, with his mother saying he wanted to increase the low percentage of lefthanders in the world’s population. Interested in world affairs, he used to record C-SPAN and watch it after football practice as a kid, later emailing congressmen about issues around the age of 10.
It’s said that Tillery can be seen reading the NASDAQ report before practices, has subscriptions to The Economist and The New Yorker, was an Economics major in college and spent a summer interning at the hedge fund Abbey Capital in Dublin, Ireland. He has interests in cooking, art, has competed in triathlons and wants to travel more. He’s already been to South Africa, Italy and Poland (to visit Auschwitz) and reportedly has many more countries he wants to visit. (Indianapolis Star)
They said it: “We always told him that he could do whatever he wanted to, if he wanted to play in the NFL he could. If he wanted to be a doctor, he could. He knew whatever he wanted to do he could always do it, and we encouraged to just do whatever makes him happy because you don’t get but one life, you’ve got to live it.”
— Tillery’s mother, Mildred, to the Indianapolis Star
Player comp: Chris Jones
Expected draft range: First-round pick
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