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New York Giants LB Justin Hilliard: The Good, the Great and the Ugly

Nick Falato breaks down new linebacker Justin Hilliard's film.

The New York Giants added three players off waivers on Wednesday. We speculated the team would be busy perusing through the recently cut players, and we were correct. They added former Jacksonville Jaguar Collin Johnson, 2021 sixth-round EDGE Quincy Roche out of Miami, and 2021 UDFA linebacker Justin Hilliard from Ohio State.

The roster will be fluid in the coming days as players get assigned to the IR, like Elerson Smith and John Ross. Other players that may pique the Giants' interest may also come available. Positions that may need depth include the tight ends, linebackers, and offensive tackles.

Rookie Justin Hilliard was a linebacker added to the roster after the San Francisco 49ers released him at final cuts, presumably with the hope of stashing him on their practice squad. 

This wouldn't be the first time Dave Gettleman snatched a 49er cut and stashed him on the roster (peers over at Kaden Smith). Let's hope Hilliard can be as successful as the backup tight end.

Hilliard was less than a part-time player at Ohio State until his redshirt senior season, where he played 231 defensive snaps as a sub-package player. Pro Football Focus had 30 solo tackles and 18 STOPS while aligning mainly inside the box. Hilliard is a bit undersized at 6'1, 230 pounds, but he has a physical nature to his game. 

Let's go over some preseason snaps of him in this edition of the Good, the Great, and the Ugly.

Justin Hilliard is No. 58 for the 49ers.

The Good: Can Tackle in Space

As we'll go over in a bit, Hilliard isn't known for elite levels of athletic ability - at least his testing doesn't suggest that. However, he does have good location skills in space to corral pass catchers who receive check-down passes.

He's a bit late to get his hands on the receiver during this slip screen, but he's able to get enough to allow teammates to drag the opposing player down. He shows solid processing ability to witness the blocks develop before him while attacking and avoid blockers looking to pick up the pursuit linebackers. Hilliard did a good job finding his way to the target, albeit the tackle could have been much cleaner.

Here's a 3rd-and-6 situation, and the Raiders attempt to dump the ball off to allow their running back an opportunity to beat the linebacker to the edge. Hilliard takes a good angle where he hits the ball carrier and drives through the tackle to bring him down before his teammate can assist him. It was an excellent open-field tackle by Hilliard.


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The Great: Physicality

Hilliard has played in a deep linebacker group, so he was buried on the depth chart behind players like Pete Werner, Baron Browning, and Tuf Borland. After reviewing some of Hilliard's preseason tape (non-All-22), I came away intrigued by the punch he can deliver when coming downhill. 

Hilliard is playing the MIKE on this play, attacking low and wrapping the ball carrier to the ground. The former Buckeye also does a good job picking where and when to attack once the running back commits himself. He's not bad when filling these interior gaps.

He better be physical because he's not overly athletic. I felt he was more bursty on tape than a 16th percentile 10-yard-split, but that may indicate his solid overall lower body explosiveness; for whatever reason, he did not test well in the straight line running drills. Look at that bench press number; now that's an indicator of strength.

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On the goal line, he attacks aggressively and beats #73 to the line of scrimmage. Hilliard uses his low leverage to his advantage to get underneath the blocker and position himself in the B-gap, right off the outside shoulder of the guard. He seems comfortable attacking in these situations, and I appreciate the physicality and toughness.

This play is a bit more lateral than the other tackles that were more straight on; Hilliard shifts his weight, stays square to the line of scrimmage, and, therefore, to the RB, and then attacks to meet the RB in the hole. Hilliard stands him up, and it constitutes a STOP. The power is solid in the hit, but he should get a bit lower to prevent the struggle while taking the player down.

Hilliard does an excellent job reading and diagnosing this rushing play. He shimmies to square and slightly scrapes over some trash as the linemen attempt to climb to his level. Once he sees the lineman release, he dips his leverage and goes underneath the block, almost splits two blocks, and locates the ball carrier for an excellent tackle.

Here we see Hilliard use timing to split two blocks before converging on Hilliard at the second level. This is more about ineffective blocking than Hilliard's ability to stack & shed, but he did put himself in the position to make this play, despite the poor offensive communication. He finishes with a good strong tackle.

Hilliard is the second linebacker blitzing in the play above. He is replacing the path of the first linebacker, and the blitz works well; the Chiefs protection doesn't pick up Hilliard, who flies into the pocket to nail the quarterback and force an incompletion. Hilliard takes a direct path right through the A-Gap to put the pressure on the quarterback.


All 49ers Team Publisher Grant Cohn weighs in on what the Giants are getting in LB Justin Hilliard at the 10:40 mark of the above video.


The Ugly: Stack & Shed

It didn't happen too often, but when offensive linemen had a more clean release and they were able to climb, Hilliard would struggle not to concede ground. He would back up at times, and his ability to sink himself, pop with his hands, and work around the offensive lineman was a bit unnatural. 

This could be because of his 31 3/8" arms or because of his small (9-inch) hands. These measurables seem to work against Hilliard, and this is a crucial component to playing linebacker.

We see the guard, No. 79 here, get a free release and eliminate Hilliard from the play. The linebacker tries to go in with his hands, but it's quickly stopped, and Hilliard just gets swallowed up by the much larger player.

Hilliard backs himself up to avoid the climbing block on this play, which is not a great look. He is trying to maintain position outside to the boundary, but it's apparent that the blocker has total control of the rep and is dictating Hilliard's movements. 

He is a more undersized linebacker, and it appears to affect his game at times. I don't think this is a bad addition to the roster, but he will have to process a bit quicker to put himself into positions to avoid being squared up with blockers who can control and eliminate him from the play. 


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