Why Jerry Tillery Is Primed For A Breakout Season For The Chargers
When looking up and down the list of transactions for the Los Angeles Chargers this offseason it was clear that the front office and coaching staff wanted to really focus this year on rebooting the offense. The Chargers added a lot of veterans and three top 100 draft picks on offense. By now, you know the names but it is important to point out that Asante Samuel Jr. is the only defensive player that the Chargers really invested premium capital in this offseason.
The Chargers’ defense is going to be incredibly young. They are going to have to rely upon several players on rookie contracts including some from this year’s draft class. That is likely going to be painted as a concern, but it also will promote a strong breakout environment for a few players this season. Despite all the struggles and injuries from last season, Michael Davis was able to have a breakout season as the team’s best cornerback. They will need some more players to follow suit this season.
The Chargers are obviously hoping that Derwin James, Drue Tranquill, and Chris Harris will be available this year and return to their previous forms. Depending on how you define the word “breakout”, those three could be solid candidates.
Some could mention linebacker Kenneth Murray or edge rusher Uchenna Nwosu in this conversation, and they would certainly be good starting points. Comments were made this week from the coaching staff and Murray himself that they will be allowing him to play more downhill and aggressive in order to more effectively express his skillset. The Coaching staff has also talked pretty glowingly about Nwosu, who experienced a bit of a mini-breakout last season.
Since we’ve already seen those two players have very good seasons for the Chargers, I’m going to take this conversation elsewhere. I do believe they are ascending players but Murray did just have a 100 tackle season as a rookie and Nwosu became one of the league’s most efficient pass rushers (according to PFF he was 14th in pass rush win rate) last season.
Instead, I’ll be focusing on third-year defensive tackle Jerry Tillery.
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Many Chargers fans have been frustrated with the former first-round pick out of Notre Dame, but that likely stems from unreasonably high expectations for him. Defensive tackle is a very difficult position for a rookie to make a true impact from day one, especially one coming off of a serious injury like Tillery was – he had shoulder surgery in March leading up to the draft.
Not to mention the previous regime clearly wanted to bring him on slowly. Even when all the losses started piling up in 2019, they refused to give him more reps. In a meaningless week 17 game against the Chiefs, he only logged 16 snaps. Looking back at that rookie season, it is pretty clear that his development was hindered by the injury and the lack of reps.
After struggling as a rookie he came out in the 2020 season and looked like a completely different player. He was playing with great energy and we could see an improvement in every aspect of his game, including his overall explosiveness. He ended the season second on the team with 35 total pressures, three sacks, three tackles for loss, and two forced fumbles.
That production is a solid improvement from his rookie season, where he only managed to accumulate 10 total pressures. Although he did get three sacks that season as well.
When looking at his numbers from the 2020 season, context is important. Like many players on the Chargers’ defense, his effectiveness deteriorated as the season dragged on and the injuries around him piled up.
Losing Nwosu, Joey Bosa, and Melvin Ingram for various stretches throughout the season severely limited their pass rush and forced the Chargers to experiment with Tillery on the edge. He has the athleticism to do that from time to time, but he is better suited as an interior rusher – which Brandon Staley reiterated at his second press conference.
That being said, Tillery was having a very good season up until the halfway point of the season. In fact, 23 of his 35 total pressures and all three of his sacks came in the Chargers’ first eight games. Including a few dominant stretches, particularly against the Chiefs in week two and the Broncos in week eight. Over those first nine weeks, he was tied for 13th in total pressures and tied for ninth in sacks among qualified defensive tackles (20% of snaps).
If he had been able to carry that pace out to a full 16 game schedule he would have finished with 46 pressures and six sacks. That would have been a fantastic outcome for him.
Similar to Murray and Nwosu, the new coaching staff should greatly benefit Tillery’s development and production – at least as a pass rusher. Staley is fantastic at scheming up one on one opportunities for his primary pass rushers, which will help everyone involved along the defensive line including Tillery.
If all goes well, and he continues to develop and stay healthy, I think he could reasonably reach the 50 total pressures mark and perhaps even record his first double-digit sack season. Those numbers would put him in the top 10 among defensive tackles. If Staley can help someone like Morgan Fox double his production, then there’s no reason to believe he can’t do the same thing with a far superior talent such as Tillery.
The biggest thing that Tillery will have to correct, in terms of becoming an all-around player, is his struggles against the run. Three tackles for loss from your starting defensive tackle is simply not good enough. He has to become more consistent in that regard, and to his credit, he looks like he’s been working really hard in the gym to become a stronger player. The good news for him again is that the new scheme change won’t put him in situations where he will be struggling against double teams that frequently. When the Chargers are in their base five-man front, he should get plenty of individual work, which should lead to an increase in tackles for loss.
The Chargers’ depth along the defensive line is a little worrisome. They’re going to need Tillery to break out and become the player that they drafted him to be. I know I might be alone in this, but I truly believe that he can do it.