New York Giants inside linebacker Justin Hilliard was signed as an undrafted free agent by the 49ers after the 2021 NFL Draft, reportedly at the urging of Nick Bosa, his former college teammate.
Hilliard was a six-year linebacker at Ohio State and a top recruit coming out of high school in 2014. His college career can best be described as one that was injury-filled--he had injuries to both biceps, an Achilles injury, and a knee issue. Still, he managed to play 50 games with seven starts, posting his most productive year in 2020 with 33 tackles (five for loss), three fumble recoveries, and one interception.
Despite that production, Hilliard, who lacks ideal athleticism, went undrafted and didn't make the 53-man roster coming out of his first training camp. The 49ers waived Hilliard, and the Giants claimed his contract, hoping to develop a diamond in the rough.
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Unfortunately, that hasn't happened as Hilliard was placed on injured reserve last season on October 15 after playing just 15 special teams snaps.
What He Brings
Hilliard isn't known for having an elite athletic ability level, but he plays a physical game and has shown he can locate the ball in space to bring down recipients of check-down passes. He has also demonstrated an ability to quickly process what he sees in front of him and comes up with physicality to stop it or, at the very least, slow it down.
Hilliard has also done well in filling gaps, packing a punch, and playing with the physicality one looks for in a downhill linebacker.
That said, Hilliard was a part of a deep linebacker unit with the 49ers, so the reps came sparingly. But there was enough promise for them to reportedly want to sneak him onto their practice squad.
The Giants inherited Hilliard's three-year rookie deal worth $2.455 million. He will count for $825,000 against this year's cap if he makes the roster (minus the two-game paychecks that he'll be docked as part of his suspension, which will be credited back to the Giants). If Hilliard doesn't make the roster, the Giants will gain that $825,000 back to start the 2022 regular season.
Given the team's additions at inside linebacker over the off-season, Hilliard was likely facing an uphill battle to make the roster. It also hasn't helped that the league handed him a two-game suspension for a Performance Enhancement violation, a suspension that will cost him the first two games of the season regardless of what team he's with.