The Vikings Need a Pass Rushing DT; Does The Upside FA Addition Help?

NFL: New York Jets at Las Vegas Raiders
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Plenty of promise at Notre Dame resulted in Jerry Tillery being picked 28th overall in the 2019 NFL Draft.

The pass-rushing defensive tackle – the Vikings need a pass-rushing DT – offered some impressive numbers as a junior and senior. The 2017 season resulted in 4.5 sacks to stand alongside 9.0 TFLs. And then the 2018 season featured 8.0 sacks to go alongside 9.5 TFLs. Package the production in a 6’6”, 295-pound frame and it’s easy to see the appeal, especially since he ran an impressive 4.93 forty (he had a 9.74 RAS Score).

Sep 25, 2022; Inglewood, California, USA; Los Angeles Chargers defensive tackle Jerry Tillery (99) heads onto the field during the game against the Jacksonville Jaguars at SoFi Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Evaluators were impressed. The scouting blurb offered both caution and praise: “Tillery is a projection-based prospect with first-class traits and dominant potential, but he’s still searching for more consistency from game to game.”

PFF offered high praise, suggesting that Tillery’s “explosion off the line makes him worthy of a top-10 selection in this draft.” Toward the end, PFF compares the DT to Chris Jones due to both being “astounding pass rushers with large, athletic frames.” And then there’s a final thought: “Tillery could be this year’s Chris Jones, and he is bound to outplay his draft position.”

After five seasons, Minnesota was able to land Tillery on a 1-year prove-it deal because he hasn’t lived up to expectations. Is his career trajectory going to change with the Vikings in 2024?

The Vikings Need Greater Push from the DT Spot. Can Jerry Tillery Help?

The impressive frame is still there.

Tillery still possesses an ideal build to be a 3-4 defensive end. Harrison Phillips and Jonathan Bullard are in town (mostly) to be run stuffers. What Brian Flores is really hoping for is a player who can collapse the pocket. Getting that push in the middle makes a QB skittish, especially with guys like Andrew Van Ginkel and Jonathan Greenard along the edge.

Dec 24, 2023; Houston, Texas, USA; Houston Texans defensive end Jonathan Greenard (52) walks off the field before the game against the Cleveland Browns at NRG Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Per PFF, the 2023 season featured Tillery at his best, finishing with a 67.7 grade. Every other season has involved the DE/DT failing to clear the 50.0 grade, which may be considered the Mendoza Line in PFF’s scoring system.

In terms of traditional stats, Tillery’s most impressive season may have arrived in 2021. He snagged 51 tackles to go alongside his 4.5 sacks, 14 QB hits, and 6 TFLs (860 snaps in the process). Most recently, he turned 504 snaps with the Raiders into 31 tackles, 2 sacks, 6 QB hits, and 2 TFLs.

What Minnesota will be hoping to see is efficiency with his snaps. Don’t just pile up numbers due to being on the field a lot. Pile up impact plays even if the playing time isn’t abundant. Fifteen great snaps are better than thirty humdrum snaps.

And while his spot in the starting lineup hasn’t been assured across his career, Jerry Tillery has been pretty durable. At his worst, he has been involved in fifteen games. Last season saw a full seventeen games and six starts.

Can the 27-year-old defender (he’ll turn 28 in October) reach a new level in Minnesota?

NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Chicago Bears
Oct 15, 2023; Chicago, Illinois, USA; Minnesota Vikings defensive coordinator Brian Flores watches his team play against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field. Mandatory Credit: Jamie Sabau-USA TODAY Sports

As most know, the Vikings led the NFL in blitzing last season, sending an extra man a stunning 51.5% of the time. The Raiders found themselves in a different spot, finishing fourth lowest in the NFL by sending a blitz just 19.4% of the time.

Does playing from within increased aggression help? He’s going to get a lot of one-on-one matchups, so if he partners his athleticism with pass-rush moves that get increasingly sophisticated and refined there is going to be an opportunity for production.

In 2023, the Raiders asked Tillery to almost evenly split his time as a DT (213 snaps) and DE (211 snaps); notably, Tillery also snagged 79 snaps in an edge rusher alignment. The man who he’s replacing – Dean Lowry – saw a similar deployment, at least in terms of being a near even split between DT (122 snaps) and DE (105 snaps).

One wonders, then, if Flores is looking into his crystal ball and seeing a future where Tillery is going to oscillate between playing as a 3T and a 5T. He’ll get plenty of chances to pin his ears back and look to overcome offensive guards since sending 5+ men with regularity often necessitates one-on-one matchups.

Sep 17, 2023; Orchard Park, New York, USA; Las Vegas Raiders defensive tackle Jerry Tillery (90) against Buffalo Bills guard David Edwards (76) in the fourth quarter at Highmark Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

And, perhaps, the modest single-season deal will be fuel to toss onto the motivation fire. Pile up huge numbers in 2024 and land a monster deal in 2025 when Jerry Tillery is still only 28.

In a recent sit down with KFAN’s Paul Allen, Kwesi Adofo-Mensah talks about the defensive tackle. Allen wonders if Tillery “finds life anew professionally with [Flores].” Adofo-Mensah responds, pointing to the need for “consistency” and how “he’s starting to take that step and then you see the flashes of that high-end 1st-round talent on the interior pass rush when he kicks inside to 3-technique.” The GM goes on to note that “there’s upside.”

The Vikings will be hoping that the ascent continues and that Tillery has his best season yet in 2024.

Editor’s Note: Information from Pro Football Reference, PFF, and Sports Reference CFB helped with this piece.

K. Joudry is the Senior Editor for Vikings Territory and PurplePTSD. He has been covering the Vikings full time since the summer of 2021. He can be found on Twitter and as a co-host for Notes from the North, a humble Vikings podcast.