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Chargers OTAs: Where Does Jerry Tillery Fit in Among the Crowded Defensive Line Group?

Brandon Staley shares the outlook of the Chargers' defensive line group as OTAs get underway.

On Monday, the Chargers' first organized team activity (OTA) practice of the offseason, the team was without a few notable players, featuring edge rusher Joey Bosa, running back Austin Ekeler, wide receiver Mike Williams, cornerback J.C. Jackson, linebacker Kenneth Murray and defensive tackle Jerry Tillery who were each absent during the open availability to the media.

Bosa and Ekeler notoriously haven't shown up to the voluntary practices in recent years as they prefer to maneuver their own workout routines. Mike Williams has been around the team but was not in attendance. Jackson had a flight issue coming out of Boston, which caused him to miss the start of OTAs. He's been at the facility throughout the offseason and will be in attendance this week. Murray is rehabbing his surgically repaired ankle and is not yet up to speed to hit the practice field.

But the biggest question regarding the Chargers' roll call at the start of OTAs was Tillery not being there. The Chargers added four new additions to the interior part of their defensive line, inking contracts with Sebastian Joseph-Day, Austin Johnson and Morgan Fox, and drafted Otito Ogbonnia in the fifth-round. The Chargers also retained Christian Covington at the start of free agency, bringing him back on a one-year deal.

Tillery has his work cut out. The depth from the interior spots has gone from being one of the team's biggest weaknesses to one of their deeper positions on the roster.

Jun 15, 2021; Costa Mesa, CA, USA; Los Angeles Chargers defensive tackle Jerry Tillery (99) and defensive end Joey Bosa (99) during minicamp at the Hoag Performance Center. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

“He’s going to fit into that competition of guys that are going to have to earn a role," Staley said of Tillery on Monday. "During this springtime and during training camp, all of those guys are going to really have to duke it out to establish themselves. Sebastian and Austin are proven NFL players. Khalil Mack is a proven NFL player. Derwin James is a proven NFL player. Then, there are a bunch of guys that are trying to prove themselves, to earn their way in the league. I would put him in that category.”

Tillery, the Chargers' first-round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, who had his fifth-year option declined earlier this month, is going to have to supplant himself on the roster throughout training camp. It's clear that this year, he isn’t exactly a lock to slot into one of the interior spots.

The Chargers also have Breiden Fehoko, Joe Gaziano and Forrest Merrill as other options who will be fighting for roster spots in camp.

The team is likely to use around five roster spots – possibly six – at the position when they break camp. Joseph-Day, Johnson, Fox and Ogbonnia are essential locks to make the squad. Covington has a strong case to be made as well. Tillery's place on the roster truly comes down to whether or not they want to keep six and how much juice he can show throughout the offseason.

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Nov 29, 2020; Orchard Park, New York, USA; Los Angeles Chargers defensive tackle Jerry Tillery (99) following the game against the Buffalo Bills at Bills Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Certainly, showing up to OTAs would figure to be beneficial for a player looking to solidify himself and remain on the team. OTAs will consist of eight more practices before they roll into mandatory minicamp on June 14-15. Tillery's attendance will be a wait-and-see over the next few weeks.

In dissecting how Tillery fits in, it's worth considering that while the Chargers' Achilles heel last season was stopping the run – allowing 138.9 rushing yards per game as a team in 2021 – Tillery was susceptible in trying to slow down ball carriers. He did, however, provide a little more production in rushing the passer, recording a career-high 4.5 sacks.

But the addition of Fox, a player whose calling card is his pass-rushing ability, could serve as a potential replacement. Fox spent the 2020 season under Staley on the Rams' top-ranked defense, registering six sacks in his lone season playing in his scheme.

“Morgan is tough. He is physical and he is disciplined," Staley said of Fox. "He has versatility to play a bunch of different places in the front. The guy, wherever he’s been, whether it’s high school, college or the NFL, has rushed the passer at a high level. When it was 2020 and we were with the Rams, Morgan Fox was a starter for us with Aaron [Donald] in there. It’s exciting to join up with him. He’s in that group competing for a role. I was really excited to get Morgan on this team.”

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Nick Cothrel is the publisher of Charger Report. Follow Nick on Twitter @NickCothrel for more Chargers coverage.