The wide receiver class in the 2023 NFL Draft is going to test front offices around the league. This class is widely regarded as a weak one due to the lack of prototypical “blue chip” receivers. However, it does have a pretty impressive breadth of talent, with body types and skill sets to suit a pretty wide variety of needs among teams.
Tennessee wide receiver Cedric Tillman was one of the players in contention to be the first receivers off the board at the start of 2022. He had a breakout 2021 season that saw him rack up 1,081 yards on 64 catches (16.9 per catch) and 12 touchdowns. Unfortunately, his 2022 season was disrupted early on by a high ankle sprain. As a result, Tillman has steadily been overshadowed by the other receivers in the draft class.
The New York Giants could use another primary outside receiver to compliment Isaiah Hodgins and their bevy of slot options. Has Tillman achieved sleeper status enough to be an option on the second day of the draft?
Prospect: Cedric Tillman (4)
Games Watched: vs. Pittsburgh (2022), vs. Kentucky (2022), vs. Georgia (2022), vs. South Carolina (2022)
Red Flags: High ankle sprain (2022)
Games Played: 24
Yards (YPC): 1,622 (14.9 per catch)
2022 Games Played: 6
Yards (YPC): 417 (11.3 per catch)
Best: Size, physicality, play strength, route running, blocking
Worst: Quickness, agility, press coverage
Projection: A rotational possession receiver with starting upside.
Tennessee’s Cedric Tillman is a big, physical, and savvy wide receiver prospect.
Tillman has near prototypical size for the position at 6-foot 3 ⅜ inches, 214 pounds, and big 10-inch hands. He has solid speed and explosiveness for his size as well, running a 4.54 second 40-yard dash and jumping 37 inches.
Tillman played almost exclusively on the outside, often lining up outside the numbers in Tennessee’s extreme spread offense. He was also used in stack or bunch formations, and, interestingly, not always as a blocker. Tennessee’s offense would occasionally play on opponent’s expectations with Tillman and align him as though he was going to block, only for him to be a ball carrier on wide receiver screens.
Tennessee runs a relatively simple offense, full of RPOs, half-field reads, forced one-on-one opportunities, and schemed separation. That said, Tillman shows a surprising amount of savvy within the structure of that offense. He understands his roles in route concepts and in blocking schemes well, and doesn’t waste time processing. He runs his routes well, with a crisp release against off coverage and an understanding of how to use his routes against defenders. He does a good job of either varying the tempo of his route to disrupt defenders’ timing or pressing his stem vertically to force them to respect a deep threat and create opportunities when breaking back toward the ball. He also flares his stems and uses head or body fakes to force (incorrect) guesses by cornerbacks before his own breaks.
Tillman is very competitive at the catch point and knows how to use his size to his advantage. He generally locates the ball well in the air, makes good adjustments, and uses his physicality to box out defenders.
As mentioned above, Tillman was occasionally used as a ball carrier on receiver screens and he shows some upside with the ball in his hands. As with other areas of his game, he relies on strength and physicality as a ball carrier. However, he has a solid burst after the catch and decent vision to find running lanes.
Much more often, however, Tillman was a blocker for his teammates, and he is a tenacious one. Tillman seems to relish contact on the perimeter and downfield, and blocks with the kind of nasty streak scouts normally look for from offensive linemen. He routinely strives to sustain his blocks for as long as necessary and finishes them with an extra shove on defensive backs. He blocks with solid technique, seeking defenders’ chest plate and driving them off the ball. There were even some short-yardage or goal line packages in which Tennessee used Tillman as a tight end.
While Tillman has a powerful lower body and a good initial burst, he isn’t quick or agile enough to be considered a particularly athletic receiver. He needs to throttle down when breaking back to the ball on stick routes or when changing direction sharply. Likewise, he lacks real “phonebooth” quickness (ie, sudden stop/start quickness or change of direction ability) to be a consistent threat as a ball carrier.
He will also need to continue to hone the finer points of the receiver position to be an every-down player at the NFL level. While Tillman already has some route running savvy, he wasn’t asked to run a particularly diverse rute tree. He also needs to improve his hand usage when dealing with press-man coverage. As it stands now, he mostly relies on his size and physicality to overcome press coverage, but he struggles to separate when the opposing corner is able to stand up to him.
He could also stand to run his routes with more urgency when the play is away from him. There are instances when he knows the ball won’t be coming his way and noticeably slows down.
Tillman was hampered throughout 2022 by a high ankle sprain suffered early in the year. He underwent “tightrope” surgery to speed his recovery, and teams will want to do their due diligence on his recovery and prognosis.
(Note: QB Hendon Hooker suffered a torn ACL in this game)
Overall Grade: 7.5
Cedric Tillman projects as a possession receiver at the NFL level, with starting upside after some development.
Tillman could be rotated onto the field right away in 11 or 10 personnel packages, but will need to expand his toolbox a bit before he becomes an every-down player. He has the potential to play the X, Flanker, and Slot positions at the NFL level, but he will need to get better at dealing with physical coverage to routinely line up on the line of scrimmage as an X receiver. For now, he might need to line up off the line of scrimmage as a big slot or flanker to take advantage of that bit of cushion afforded those positions.
Teams that lean on the run game, or make heavy use of receiver screens, will find particular value in Tillman. He is a very good blocking receiver and understands how he fits into the overall blocking scheme. He also has enough athleticism to take defenses by surprise as an offensive weapon himself, though he shouldn’t be considered a “home run” threat.
Tillman might never be a star receiver, but he has a blend of traits that can make him a very useful player in the right situation.