49ers roster 2021: Linebacker Justin Hilliard a sleeper UDFA

Justin Hilliard #47 of the Ohio State Buckeyes (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
Justin Hilliard #47 of the Ohio State Buckeyes (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images) /

The 49ers made former Ohio State linebacker Justin Hilliard a priority free agent after the NFL Draft, and he could be a hidden gem in 2021 and beyond.

The San Francisco 49ers didn’t have too many roster spots to fill after their moves in the 2021 NFL Draft.

But one of the more notable ones was to bring in former Ohio State linebacker Justin Hilliard as an undrafted free agent.

And Hilliard had a well-known Niners player vouching for him.

EDGE Nick Bosa reportedly told San Francisco’s assistant general manager, Adam Peters, to “go get” Hilliard, Bosa’s former teammate with the Buckeyes.

As things panned out in the hours after the draft, that’s exactly what happened.

If it weren’t for a long list of injuries, Hilliard probably would have been drafted. Yet his tenure at the collegiate level stretched out over the period of six years, although he was still productive when he was able to contribute on the field:

Justin Hilliard Defense & Fumbles Table
*2015Ohio StateBig TenFRLB
*2016Ohio StateBig TenFRLB12240.00.00000
*2017Ohio StateBig TenSOLB11104140.00.00000
*2018Ohio StateBig TenJRLB8146201.00.00200
*2019Ohio StateBig TenSRLB1076133.00.01000
*2020Ohio StateBig TenSRLB62013335.00.01131
CareerOhio State5331849.00.02331

Provided by CFB at Sports Reference
Generated 6/24/2021.

And while the undrafted rookie has a long path towards cracking the 49ers’ 53-man roster right away, Hilliard will certainly garner plenty of attention between now and Week 1 and could be one of those sleeper adds who seemingly came out of nowhere.

Why Justin Hilliard finds a home with the 49ers in 2021

At 6-foot-1 and 231 pounds, Hilliard has a prototypical middle linebacker body type but plays with the kind of tenacity one might see from a pass-rushing defensive end.

His best home, at least according to one scouting report from The Draft Network, would be as a strong-side (SAM) linebacker, and the Niners have something of a void there despite the fact most defensive formations remove SAM backers from the formation and San Francisco’s linebackers have been far more interchangeable the last two years.

Related Story: 4 biggest questions facing 49ers defense in 2021

But where a player like Hilliard could make his impact truly felt is on special teams where he excelled during his collegiate career.

If Hilliard winds up carving out a niche role for himself with the 49ers, that’ll be why.

Why Justin Hilliard flames out with 49ers in 2021

UDFA players always face an uphill battle when trying to earn recognition for a regular-season roster, and Hilliard is no exception.

The biggest knock against him, of course, is the injury concern. And with the Niners coming off a 2020 campaign in which injuries ultimately led to a 6-10 finish, one has to assume they’ll be awfully cautious thinking Hilliard can make a substantial impact and be worth a roster spot.

Beyond that, Hilliard’s high motor can sometimes reveal issues he has with technique and consistency. He’s not particularly fast and can’t keep up with faster receivers, and there were a number of instances where he’d take poor angles on ball carriers, too.

Those will have to be refined fast if he hopes to hang around.

Chances of making 49ers’ 53-man roster

Behind Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw, San Francisco has plenty of open-ended questions as to who’ll round out its linebacking depth chart.

Third-year pro Azeez Al-Shaair is a strong contender to survive roster cuts, but players like Hilliard, Nathan Gerry, James Burgess Jr., Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles, Jonas Griffith and Elijah Sullivan, another UDFA player, are all vying for perhaps one or two spots on the 53-man roster.

Hilliard receiving $95,000 in guaranteed money for his three-year, $2.455 million contract is substantial enough for an undrafted player, and that should indicate the 49ers feel pretty good about his roster chances.

That said, he remains on the bubble, and the guaranteed cash isn’t enough to completely spare him from being cut if he fails to impress enough between now and Week 1.

Hilliard seems to have a better road ahead of him than Sullivan, Gerry or Griffith, but it’ll take a strong showing at training camp and the preseason.

However, if those efforts work out well enough, the Niners could end up with a key special teams ace and quality reserve within their ranks.

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