49ers roster 2021: This undrafted free agent makes biggest difference

Justin Hilliard #47 of the Ohio State Buckeyes (Photo by G Fiume/Maryland Terrapins/Getty Images)
Justin Hilliard #47 of the Ohio State Buckeyes (Photo by G Fiume/Maryland Terrapins/Getty Images) /

The 49ers shouldn’t expect too much from their 2021 undrafted free-agent class, but Ohio State’s Justin Hilliard could be the exception.

Not long after the conclusion of the 2021 NFL Draft, San Francisco 49ers EDGE Nick Bosa told the front office they had to go after his former teammate at Ohio State, linebacker Justin Hilliard.

Wisely listening to Bosa, the Niners subsequently signed the undrafted free agent, which included giving Hilliard a three-year deal with $125,000 in guaranteed money.

Substantial for a UDFA.

There are many takeaways from San Francisco’s offseason, but one of them is the team wasn’t entirely satisfied with its linebacker depth behind Dre Greenlaw and Fred Warner.

Hilliard, despite his own collegiate concerns, is hopefully pegged to be a part of the solution.

Injuries were a major reason why Hilliard went undrafted. Spending six full seasons within the collegiate ranks, including two redshirt freshman years, Hilliard endured multiple knee injuries and multiple bicep tears, too.

Perhaps this would stand in contrast to what the 49ers wanted to do in the wake of last year’s myriad of injury pileups.

But taking a flier on an undrafted free agent, that’s a bit of a different story.

How Justin Hilliard can impact 49ers

Hilliard wasn’t the only new-face linebacker the Niners brought in during the offseason. Joining him are veterans like Nathan Gerry and James Burgess Jr. along with another UDFA, Kansas State’s Elijah Sullivan.

These four figure to compete with the presumed favorite to assume the No. 3 spot on the depth chart, Azeez Al-Shaair, and it’s a fairly open-ended competition heading towards training camp.

Read More: 49ers linebacker depth is thin behind Dre Greenlaw, Fred Warner

Exactly how Hilliard fits in is a provocative question. At 6-foot and 229 pounds, he’s a bit undersized to assume anything but an off-ball middle linebacker, yet he lacks the straight-line speed to close gaps against faster ball-carriers or receiving targets. On top of that, he doesn’t fit the mold of being a more modern coverage-type linebacker because of the lack of speed.

That’s OK, though.

If anything, Hilliard is more of a throwback linebacker in many senses. What he lacks in an athletic profile, he more than makes up with by football smarts and positioning. It might be possible to athletically beat Hilliard, but he won’t be fooled often.

This trait might not be enough for him to earn a spot on the 53-man roster, let alone a primary backup job. But Hilliard has also shown good prowess on special teams during his collegiate career, and that might be the ticket for him to earn a job with the regular-season squad.

Potentially as San Francisco’s fourth linebacker behind Al-Shaair.

Al-Shaair, too, was an undrafted free agent. And while he also has his own limitations, Al-Shaair is looking like a decent reserve player in his own right.

The 49ers are hoping Hilliard, perhaps more than any other UDFA grabbed this offseason, winds up on a similar trajectory.

Next. 49ers' 5 most underrated moves of the offseason. dark