The 2019 NFL Draft is going to be referred to as “an answer” to the high-powered offenses of the Kansas City Chiefs, LA Rams, and New Orleans Saints. The reality is that for a long time now it has simply been a loaded defensive class. That’s why many mock drafts are overloaded with defensive players in the first round, specifically centered around defensive linemen on the inside and out. Over at ProFootballFocus, 20 of 32 picks were defenders, including number one pick Nick Bosa, five of the top seven, 14 of the top 19, and 16 of the top 24, leading into the Seattle Seahawks’ projected pick at 25.
That’s where PFF has them selecting Notre Dame interior lineman Jerry Tillery as the “Malik McDowell” project they’re still looking for.
25. SEATTLE SEAHAWKS – JERRY TILLERY, DI, NOTRE DAME
Malik McDowell was supposed to be the answer at 3-tech before his career was cut short and the Seahawks haven’t found a replacement since. The 6-foot-7 Tillery is a dominant physical specimen who is already developed as a pass-rusher. His 17.0% win rate as a pass-rusher is second among interior defensive linemen in college football this season.
The senior Tillery has played four years at Notre Dame, including three as a full-time starter. He had 56 tackles, nine for a loss, and 4.5 sacks in 13 games last year. He has 28, 8.5, and seven this season as the Fighting Irish are headed to the College Football Playoff, potentially giving him two more high-profile games to showcase his talents.
He’s listed at 305 pounds and he’s notably tall for a 3-tech, as McDowell was at 6’6 and 300 lbs. Take Geno Atkins and Aaron Donald, both “undersized” at tackle, who are both 6’1. Jarran Reed checks in at 6’3. No DT at the combine this year was 6’6 or above, while McDowell and Jarron Jones were the only such players in 2017. It was more of a trend in the early 2000s, when Richard Seymour, Marcus Stroud, Albert Haynesworth, and John Henderson were all first round picks at 6’6 or 6’7. No 6’6 or over defensive tackle has gone in the first round since Haynesworth and Henderson in 2002.
I see only nine 6’6 or taller defensive tackles at the combine in the last 16 years, including former Seahawk Alan Branch, a second rounder in 2007. The most recent “success” is Chris Jones, a second rounder of the Chiefs in 2016 who is a certain Pro Bowler with 10.5 sacks this season, albeit as a “defensive end” in a 3-4. Where would Jones play in Seattle? Would he be as successful? Probably, but I’m just throwing those questions out there for everyone to think about.
I’m also thinking about him playing next to Poona Ford, the NFL’s shortest defensive lineman.
If the Seahawks selected Tillery, would he strictly play inside, or would they have him lining opposite of a very rich Frank Clark? Here’s a preseason write up on him by Chris Trapasso:
Despite having the body type of a block-eating defensive end for a traditional 3-4 base, Tillery’s hips are super fluid, and it’s with impeccable lateral agility, active hands, and long arms that he wins against more compact guards on a regular basis. Even given his height, Tillery doesn’t play that high. He’s fundamentally sound stacking and shedding blocks against he run, and he covers ground quickly with long strides after he knifes through gaps to be a disruptive pass-rusher.
Some more notes at The Draft Network, which does include some review of his 2018 season (click link for more info, this is just a sample):
Competitive Toughness – Secondary effort is fantastic. May not be the most fleet of foot but will beat teammates to the ball in pure hustle. Has plenty of functional play strength but consistency is a needed key going forward. when playing forward provides ample physical power and toughness.
Two Gap Ability – Has more promise than results, even after a breakout season in 2018. Needs to find more separation stacking blocks to cross the face of blocks and challenge ball carriers. Possesses requisite strength and length to fulfill role but will require notable development.
Pass Rush Counters – Power rusher who puts blockers on their heels with urgent forward push in rush situations. Will throw and extend hands to collapse a set and transition into a hand pull or a club to produce space to step through space and generate pressure.
Versatility – Does not showcase a great deal of outside skills but has the upside to develop into a more effective every down defender at the NFL level. Immediate upside stands as an interior power rusher. Could feasibly play in an odd front for a more patient coaching staff.
Tillery draw all kinds of praise for his game against Stanford this season, including this one by Rob Rang (I see several outlets list him at 6’5, so take that into account now, I guess we’ll see the official word in February):
1. Jerry Tillery, DT, Notre Dame, 6-5, 306, 5.32, SR, # 99
The single most impressive performance I saw Saturday night came from Tillery, who dominated a Stanford offensive line used to bullying opponents, helping the Irish turn what was initially a very competitive game pitting two top 10 opponents into a 38-17 thumping by Notre Dame. Scouts, of course, are already well aware of Tillery, who entered the game ranked third among senior defensive tackles on NFLDraftScout.com’s board but this was the type of breakthrough performance that talent evaluators had been waiting for from the undeniably gifted (but previously inconsistent) defender. An easy mover given his size with the length and strength to handle duties up and down the line of scrimmage, Tillery recorded six tackles overall, including an eye-popping four sacks Saturday night, nearly matching his previous best single-season total (4.5 sacks last year) in just one game and now giving him seven for the year.
The Seahawks definitely need defensive line help, including as an interior rusher to pair with Reed. They tried that with the failed Sheldon Richardson experiment and the McDowell selection before it, the injury to him being what triggered the trade for Sheldon. They signed and released Tom Johnson. They probably like what Shamar Stephen is doing but he’s a free agent and his one-year trial run may end. Even re-signing Stephen wouldn’t preclude them from drafting a defensive tackle, which honestly ... probably isn’t even going to be a first rounder.
Seattle always trades down, but they’ll be even more inclined to do so because of the trade for Duane Brown that included their 2019 second rounder. The Seahawks could be picking in the 20s now because of their win streak that could get them into the playoffs, so 25 is a fair estimate. At that point, the Seahawks are probably going to be making and receiving calls to move down and maybe add a day two pick. Given the abundance of talented defensive lineman next year, it makes it even more likely that they’ll be comfortable getting “their guy” in the second round, just as they did with Clark, Reed, and they thought, McDowell.
If Seattle selects Tillery, I doubt it will be at 25. And given his talent for a productive and successful Notre Dame team, a good combine could make him out of range for the Seahawks eventually.