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49ers training camp spotlight: Looking at Justin Hilliard’s chances to make the 53-man roster

I saw the comments demanding respect for Justin Hilliard’s name, so I took a deeper dive into what he has to offer to the 49ers.

Reese’s Senior Bowl Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images

The San Francisco 49er’s defense overachieved last year with a ton of injuries. Regardless, I saw the comments from some of you thinking Justin Hilliard can make an impact on the roster. Hilliard has fought through a ton of potentially career-ending injuries and still managed to play 36 games at the prestigious Ohio State University.

Looking at the injuries

  1. Missed the high school U.S. Army All-American because of minor meniscus surgery in 2014.
  2. Tore his right bicep, forcing him to redshirt at Ohio State in 2015.
  3. Tore his left bicep during the 2016 season.
  4. He tore his Achilles in the spring of 2019; however, he appeared in ten games that season.

San Francisco brings back four linebackers, who all but Fred Warner are still developing. Justin Hilliard would have to show he can impact the passing game and more to jump these four. Hilliard finished his collegiate career with the three best games of his career.

Mainly a special-teamer through his six years at Ohio State, comparatively, his ceiling is the same role. The Niners need better play when guarding running backs out the backfield and in-zone coverage. Hilliard often looks limited in space on film, but he still has some upside. I think it's a long shot he makes the 53-man roster. Hilliard’s poor athletic score may not truly reflect him as a prospect.

Hilliard makes a good play on the tunnel screen above. It’s good to see Hilliard put his foot in the ground, shed the block, and make the open field tackle. However, mainly when watching Hilliard, it’s clear that he is limited in space.

Above, you see Hilliard not being physical at the point of attack against the bubble screen. Of course, he ends up getting chipped by the other receiver, but it often shows up that he doesn't always plan to defeat blocks.

For the most part, Hilliard uses his lateral quickness to get past or around blocks. However, Hilliard’s fate changed when Baron Browning's injury prevented him from playing. Nevertheless, Justin Hilliard would go on and have his career-best game in the 2020 Big Ten championship.

Hilliard is not violent with his hands at the goal line. I’ve been tough on Dre Greenlaw, but we've seen him make a division-winning play at the goal line. Tenacity is a must-have when talking about intangibles for a linebacker.

Hilliard completely blows past the downhill blocker for a big hit near the goal line. I can say that he fits the run consistently together with beating blocks by using his quickness.

Hilliard will consistently have to make tedious plays like these in camp. It’s not a secret that Hilliard has to be more than sharp to earn a spot on the 53-man roster. He will have to show he can cover running backs and show he can rush the passer.

Hilliard’s coverage grade is heavily skewed. When Ohio State came out in Nickel or Dime formation, he was never on the field. It’s hard to gauge how good Hilliard is in pass coverage, granted that he only played in Base formation.

Hilliard makes a great play mirroring the tight end in man coverage to get the interception. There aren’t many reps of Hilliard isolated in man coverage, but this one stands out. Again, playing through the receiver and getting his eyes around to the ball will directly translate to the NFL.

2021 Outlook

Hilliard will have to separate himself from the other linebackers in camp, which may mean experimenting at the defensive end position. With this in mind, I may sound crazy, but his ceiling to make the 53-man roster is special teams. So if he shows he can defeat blocks in passing situations or as a situational Blitzer, he could find himself on the team.

All in all, the 49ers linebacker depth is good, but it does need another player to step up. Training camp allows everyone to showcase what they can bring to this season. Justin Hilliard will have to “wow” coaches all camp to be a part of the 49ers.