Justin Hilliard - Linebacker, Ohio State
By the numbers:
6'0", 229 pounds. 4.81 40-yard dash per pro day measurements.
2020: 33 tackles (5.0 for loss), one pass broken up, one forced fumble and an interception in six games played.
Tenacity is the nature of Justin Hilliard's game. He quickly gets going downhill, takes aggressive angles to the ballcarrier and displays high effort in coverage and when making tackles. He was unleashed in spurts at Ohio State and made the occasional splash play. Hilliard plays with a chip on his shoulder.
Despite being undersized for a SAM-style linebacker, Hilliard plays big. His stack-and-shed ability is plus, and he understands how to win with leverage when engaged with tight ends, offensive linemen or running backs. Hilliard does his best work when attacking the line of scrimmage but is also physical by nature when lined up in man coverage.
Hilliard doesn't have a defined position in the NFL. He has the style and profile of a SAM linebacker on tape, but he's underweight for the role. He needs to add at least 10 pounds of muscle. He's too stiff in the hips to play the WILL position and isn't experienced enough to be a MIKE. Hilliard very well may be solely a depth piece until a team decides where to put him on the field.
Injuries are also a concern with Hilliard, as he dealt with a myriad of them during his time with the Buckeyes. He frequently found himself buried in the depth chart, partially because he couldn't stay on the field. Would he be able to withstand the taxing physical blows a SAM linebacker takes on a down-to-down basis? At just under 230 pounds, it's a question worth asking.
How Hilliard fits with the Chiefs:
Willie Gay Jr. and Anthony Hitchens are slated to be the Chiefs' WILL and MIKE linebackers in their base shell for 2021 and possibly 2022. With Damien Wilson departing via free agency, a SAM replacement is much-needed. Hilliard fits the description of a SAM but doesn't meet the size parameters typically needed. He'd be a solid developmental piece, as the Chiefs could add some strength to his frame in an effort to prepare him to assume that role in a year.
When on the field for Ohio State, Hilliard played hard. He brings great energy and is an attack-style linebacker. With that said, he needs to bulk up in order to keep playing his brand of football. Continued health and progression will dictate how his career unfolds at the next level. Hilliard grades out as an early sixth-round prospect who is a top-200 talent, but is still at least a year away from being more than a special teams contributor.