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Jerry Tillery is entering a ‘put up or shut up’ season

In year three, the expected jump in progression will be the largest.

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NFL: Los Angeles Chargers at Kansas City Chiefs Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

As a first-round pick coming into the NFL, expectations are obviously going to be high. For some, if you aren’t setting the world on fire — even just a little bit as a rookie — there will be those who will consider them a bust. When it comes to others, they have the benefit of the doubt that after their first year or two in the league, they’ll have acclimated enough to start looking like the player many expect them to be in the NFL.

For the Jerry Tillery, I’d say he fit in the latter category as the 28th-overall pick back in 2018. He wasn’t a “can’t miss”-prospect and he had a recent injury that had kept him from testing and performing at 100 percent during the time leading up to the draft. At any rate, fans saw his sack numbers and his high pass-rush grade from Pro Football Focus and came to the conclusion that the Bolts were getting a heck of a player at a spot so far into the first round.

Heck, some in the media even believed he was one of the best value picks in the entire draft. But who would have guessed that after his first two seasons in the NFL, Tillery has been pretty close to an afterthought on the defense, albeit with a few notable flashes in 2020.

After a rookie season that saw him rank as the worst defensive tackle in the NFL according to PFF (despite recording a pair of sacks), Tillery bounced back slightly in 2020 with a career-high three quarterback takedowns, including the first of the season for the Chargers. On the other hand, the second-year pro was called for more than his fair share of penalties, including a number of unsportsmanlike conduct flags.

Now, in Brandon Staley’s new defense, the former first-rounder will get the chance to play in a scheme that looks to utilize his skillset a bit more than Gus Bradley’s.

Will a fresh start like this make that much of a difference? I sure hope.

Going back to this idea of underwhelming first-round picks being seen as busts, Tillery is entering what Bleacher Report is calling a “put up for shut up” season. Essentially, NFL writer Chris Roling believes that if Tillery — among five other players included in his recent article — don’t see some kind of a breakout in 2021, then maybe the light just won’t ever turn on for them.

“When the Los Angeles Chargers made Jerry Tillery the 28th pick in 2019, the team expected a centerpiece that could disrupt and stutter rushing attacks alongside Joey Bosa,” said Roling. “Instead, Tillery has struggled over 31 appearances, generating just five sacks. His pressure count jumped from three to 22 in his sophomore season as his snap percentage jumped from 36 to 72.”

“But that bigger spat of playing time didn’t provide positive signals across the board. At PFF, for example, he graded at a 43.9 in 2020 (in the ”replaceable” category). That was up from his rookie year’s 35.5, but it paints a poor picture about his all-around play, at least by one grading metric.”

For some extra context, a PFF grade of 60.0 is considered just “average.” Meaning that any run-of-the-mill player in the NFL at his position will receive a similar grade should they simply get their job done while simultaneously not making a ton of splash and/or bad plays along the way. So for Tillery to earn such low-to-the-floor grades in his first two seasons is...almost impressive? Something like that.

This is all pretty abhorrent for a former first-round pick and that’s exactly why there’s so many expectations stacked high on his shoulders. Is Staley the key to finally unlocking that dormant potential we can’t help but feel is there? Only time will tell. But for his and the Chargers’ sake, I sure hope things bounce his way in 2021.