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Raiders Outlook 2023: Jerry Tillery can be the inside rusher, if he puts it all together

Las Vegas banking on defensive tackle adding teeth to pass rush up the middle

NFL: San Francisco 49ers at Las Vegas Raiders
The Las Vegas Raiders claimed defensive tackle Jerry Tillery off waivers from the Los Angeles Chargers. The Silver & Black are banking on Tillery putting the talent that made him a 2019 first-round pick together in the desert.
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The Silver & Black were once the kings of the scrapheap reclamation projects. Perhaps the Las Vegas Raiders can be that again, with a former Los Angles Chargers no less, in Jerry Tillery.

It’s going to be a tall order, or course.

After being selected with the 28th overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft out of Notre Dame, Tillery was waived by the Bolts on November 10 last year. He was scooped up by the Raiders just four days later and ended up playing in eight games with four starts in Las Vegas. He racked up 10 total tackles, three pressures and two quarterback hits during that span. And Tillery landed a one-year deal with the Raiders this offseason.

But whether it was as a Charger or a Raider, inconsistency remains Tillery’s biggest issue. At 6-foot-6 and 295 pounds, the 26-year-old five-year veteran has the build of an in-between defensive lineman that doesn’t have the speed to get around the edge as a defensive end and is too light to be a defensive tackle.

It’s that same height and slender frame that proves to be both Tillery’s greatest asset and hinderance as an interior lineman. He’s got an arsenal of pass rush moves and is nimble in the middle to beat interior offensive linemen to the punch when getting after the quarterback. But when it comes to run defending, Tillery is often displaced and moved around by those same blockers. It’s a massive give and take and that gap in pass rush and run stopping needs to close.

What helps Tillery’s case in Las Vegas is the Raiders lack any pass rush juice from the middle of the defensive line, The team is seeking an interior pass rusher in the worst way with Bilal Nichols, Adam Butler, and Matthew Butler along with Tillery the group that have the best shot of claiming the three-technique role that serves as the rushing component next to the bigger and stronger options to play the nose tackle roles.

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Las Vegas Raiders
Claimed off waivers from the Los Angeles Chargers, Jerry Tillery (90) played eight games for the Las Vegas Raiders last season and signed a two-year deal with the Silver & Black this offseason.
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

If placed in a rotational role, Tillery can help mix in and provide a more athletic presence on the inside while sharing snaps with Nichols or another defender. But if he can find the consistency and be a force against the run, he’ll be well on his way to earning more than the 258 snaps he earned in 2022.

Tillery’s best season arrived in 2021 with the lined up at left defensive end on the Chargers defense. He racked up career-highs in total tackles (51), stops for loss (six), sacks (4.5), quarterback hits (14), starts (15), and snaps (860). Coming out of Notre Dame, Tillery was projected as a year one starter in an end role on a 3-4 defense — something the Chargers did deploy before current head coach Brandon Staley came in.

With the Raiders running a base 4-3 defense under defensive boss Patrick Graham, Tillery appears locked in at defensive tackle instead of end. While the tale of Tillery’s tape did showcase a prospect that can operate in both 3-4 or 4-3 alignments, but there was one glaring area of opportunity in his game that remains an issue — hand usage.

While he did impress scouts and draft pundits with his power and bull rush, his unrefined hand usage allowed offensive lineman to lock onto him, latch on, and move him away from the play. That remains an inconsistent piece of Tillery’s game going on six years in the league. He’s an upright slender interior lineman who hasn’t learned how to truly make his hands weapons, meaning the power he can generate doesn’t reach 100 percent capacity as blockers easily access his frame and go about the business of rendering Tillery useless.

And getting washed out on plays is about the only thing Tillery is consistent at.

That’s a must-change heading into the 2023 campaign with Las Vegas. Tillery arrived on the NFL scene with the makings of a dominant interior pass rusher. The tools remain, but it’ll take Tillery putting it all together. The Raiders didn’t break the bank to find out, but it’s a two-year, $6.8 million gamble. Of that coin, $5.5 million is guaranteed with $3.85 million guaranteed at signing.

The contract certainly reads like a pass rusher earning some serious bank. We’ll see if the Raiders cash in or merely go bust on a first-round flame out.