- College: Tennessee
- Height: 6’3” | Weight: 213 lbs. | Age: 22.9
- Archetype: Physical | Modifier: Outside-X
- Games Watched 2021: Alabama, Purdue | 2022: Pittsburgh, Kentucky, Georgia, and Ball State
- NFL Draft Projection: Day 2
Cedric Tillman, a three-star recruit out of Las Vegas, took some time finding his footing in Tennessee. Only 124 yards over his first three seasons, Tillman broke out in 2021 with a thousand-yard and 12-touchdown campaign. Earmarked as a potential first-round selection coming into the 2022 college football season, Tillman picked up where he left off in 2021. The primary receiver for the Volunteers, Tillman, showed out in a week two non-conference thriller against Pittsburgh. He was targeted 18 times, caught nine passes for 162 yards, and the game-winning touchdown in overtime. Unfortunately, a week later, against Akron, he suffered a high ankle injury that required surgery.
Tillman’s injury cleared the way for Jalin Hyatt’s Biletnikoff award-winning season. Hyatt is now the rocky top WR generating first-round NFL draft love. He has a rare athletic skillset and deserves credit for excelling in Cedric’s absence. However, it’s worth noting that outside of the Kentucky game, which was Tillman’s first week back from injury, Tillman was the more targeted and productive WR for Tennessee with both in the lineup.
Tillman is an experienced player with a physical playstyle who represents the best pure X receiver once Quentin Johnston is off the board. NFL teams looking for size at WR will covet his deep and intermediate skillset. Perhaps no longer valued as a first-rounder, Tillman should still hear his name called on the second day of the NFL Draft and can immediately fill a role for an NFL team as a WR2. Let’s check out the tape!
A proficient chain mover and intermediate route runner, Tillman had a good portion of his success on comebacks, digs, and out routes. Not necessarily a flexible or explosive athlete, he has good route pacing and uses the leverage his massive frame creates to an advantage.
The two plays shown above are against potential first-round defensive back Kelee Ringo. Tillman is an older prospect, but with age and SEC seasoning, you can see a player ready for the elevation in competition. While not excellent at changing direction, he has sneaky straight-line speed and can quickly gear down. Combined with his length and punch, defending Tillman on comeback patterns is difficult even for top SEC cornerbacks.
Tillman lacks premier twitch and explosion out of breaks. However, he does well in intermediate areas on horizontal routes maintaining speed through the cut. Additionally, with solid spatial awareness, he regularly finds the soft spot in zone coverages. Here we see a simple speed out against zone coverage. You can see lower body stiffness in Tillman’s game, but on timing patterns, he gets to the vacated space in plenty of time.
Like a boxer throwing jab after jab to open up the eventual left hook, Tillman was excellent at providing a knockout punch if defensive backs began sitting on routes. While not blindingly fast, he covers a lot of ground at top speed and will expose corners caught cheating.
Nothing too complex here, as former Alabama cornerback Josh Jobe is caught out of position at the snap, and Tillman runs by effortlessly. Tillman registered a 4.54 forty-yard dash at last week’s NFL Combine, a good time for a WR over 210 lbs. He looks every bit as fast on film and has enough of a speed profile to keep his intermediate game effective in the NFL.
Tennessee QB Hendon Hooker, unfortunately, airmails the throw on the play shown above. However, a terrific out-and-up route by Tillman should’ve resulted in a touchdown. The stutter and lean to the outside freezes CB MJ Devonshire and Tillman is beyond the last defender. While the overthrow was a missed opportunity, Hooker would find a way to make it up to his fifth-year receiver in OT.
My Ball Mentality
We’ve demonstrated that Tillman has the speed and separation ability to get vertical at the next level. However, as competition increases and coverage gets tighter, attacking the ball at its highest point becomes paramount to success in the NFL. With only modest leaping ability, Tillman plays well through contact and can out-muscle most defenders at the catch point.
With a slot fade pattern that generates huge separation, Tillman does an excellent job adjusting to an underthrown pass. He catches the ball at its highest point and, more importantly, holds it through contact with the defender and ground.
As mentioned, Tillman dominated in the Pittsburgh road victory, providing the touchdown to seal things in overtime. While not a terrific route and primarily bad defense, this play encapsulates Tillman’s film. Too big, too physical, for most defenders to regularly cover. When things break down, and your QB is in trouble, he is a get-out-of-jail-free card.
Tillman’s loss in perceived draft excitement is primarily because of the ankle injury this season. However, he has deficiencies on tape that are not typical of a first-round WR. We’ve discussed that as a linear athlete, he is above average. However, explosiveness and change of direction skills are not terrific. Additionally, Tillman was asked to fill a specific role within Josh Heupel’s up-tempo spread system. With the injury, he is more of a projection than you’d like in a fifth-year player.
Limited Route Tree
Cedric excelled within this high-octane Tennessee offense, and we should not hold that against him. However, the route variety within Tillman’s film is minimal. The Volunteers primarily employed him on go, curl, and to a lesser degree, dig routes. He was rarely asked to attempt double moves and, beyond the occasional slant route, was targeted infrequently in the short areas of the field. Tillman can still excel within a narrow route tree, but these limitations make him a more useful WR2 at the next level.
Whether bracing for a hit or attempting to cut as the ball arrived, Tillman struggled with catches in traffic. While successful in contested catch scenarios downfield, most of his drops occurred in the middle of the field. He uses his hands to catch the ball but needs to concentrate more, potentially sacrificing yards after to ensure the catch first in these congested areas. Perhaps a trivial weakness because if utilized in the NFL as he was in Tennessee, Tillman won’t be asked to make catches in this area of the field.
- Upside Prospect Comp: Gabe Davis
- Floor Prospect Comp: Nico Collins
- Rookie Position Ranking: WR8
- SuperFlex Draft Range: Early/Mid 3rd Round
In an average year, I imagine WR8 would carry a higher Superflex range than the middle of the third round, but that’s where we are in 2023’s loaded class. Quarterback and tight end alone should see 8-10 names come off the board before this tier of receivers. The group of running backs more worthy of a high dynasty selection over a speculative wide receiver exceeds ten.
That’s what Tillman is; a speculative receiver who will be 23 years old before he plays his first game in the NFL. Capable of achieving fantasy success within optimal settings as a WR2, landing spot will be critical for Tillman. WR is the position group that is down, and while Tillman is within the top ten, you should prioritize other positions once Jaxon Smith-Njigba, Quentin Johnston, and Jordan Addison are gone.
NFL Combine is in the rearview, so it’s high time to start diving deep into all these rookies. The Prospect Film Room has you covered, with All-22 film cutups of your favorite prospects continuously being added. The 2023 Rookie Profile series is in full swing for those looking for our film evaluations. Click the link for all the great work done by the #NerdsStaff. Give yourself the gift of relentless dominance in your leagues with a NerdHerd subscription.