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NFL Draft

2021 NFL Draft Scouting Report: LB Justin Hilliard

  • The Draft Network
  • January 10, 2021
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PROSPECT SUMMARY - JUSTIN HILLIARD

Justin Hilliard is one of a slew of Buckeyes linebackers to be passing through the NFL draft process this season. Hilliard was the de facto LB4 and therefore rotated amongst the likes of Pete Werner, Baron Browning, and Tuf Borland. Hilliard certainly has merits as a prospect and on a different team may have had a greater opportunity to showcase his abilities and drum up more interest. As things stand, Hilliard projects as valued depth and a potential SAM linebacker in a 4-3 under front with the ability to play both flexed out to the hash and on the line of scrimmage overtop of tight ends. Hilliard showed good trigger skills to attack downhill when processing run (Alabama 2020) and developed quite the knack for being in the right spot to create big plays down the stretch for the Buckeyes. His ability to absorb a featured role isn’t necessarily proven—although he did play significant snaps for Ohio State in 2020—but even if he’s a depth player, he will fulfill requirements on special teams thanks to his functional athleticism and tackling. 

Ideal Role: SAM linebacker, core special teamer.

Scheme Fit: 4-3 under front.

FILM EVALUATION

Written by Kyle Crabbs

Games watched: Michigan State (2020), Northwestern (2020), Clemson (2020), Alabama (2020)

Best Game Studied: Northwestern (2020)

Worst Game Studied: Alabama (2020)

Tackling: Hilliard brings confidence and an effective tackle radius in head-up situations—he’s banged with some bigger backs and found success to finish. His special teams prowess yielded some of the better tackles on the team during his time as a core teamer. If you put him in conflict, you’ll see some of his transitions and lateral mobility spring up and put him in bad positions. 

Football IQ: Hilliard is well versed in a number of different roles. His ability to process isn’t quite as polished and forcing him to read action post-snap can result in some hesitant decisions and therefore lost leverage. 

Competitive Toughness: Played through an Achilles injury in 2018 and was able to participate in nearly every game that season. He’s a high-pursuit player with good rally skills and effective close to the football. Functional strength and power is above average but not a hallmark trait that he’ll hang his hat on to bang with blockers in the box and stuff up gaps. 

Pass Coverage Ability: Hilliard spent much of 2020 serving as the Buckeyes' SAM and that exposure will offer him a pathway to success on third downs. If he’s playing TEs hands on at the line of scrimmage, he should have some success disrupting the timing of releases. But playing in isolation will test his transitional quickness and angles to close to the catch window. 

Run Defending: At his best to shoot gaps but he is capable of setting the line of scrimmage against tight ends and lighter blockers. He springs quickly into action from outside the box to step up and helping set a firm edge to the field. His ability to flash or mirror ball-carriers in one on one is only modest, however—he can get shook in short space.

Block Deconstruction: Hilliard showed comfort in the box and a willingness to throw hands and lock horns at the point of attack. He doesn’t have a great deal of punch power and he doesn’t show the same disengagement savvy as his teammate Pete Werner, but he’s not a liability here. His skills will be more useful in this regard covering kicks than they will be as a defensive starter. 

Lateral Mobility: I consider him more of a linear athlete on account of his lower body. If he’s charged with driving to the boundary or attacking out of zone read or mesh, he lacks bounce laterally and will end up sagging off his angle as a result, giving up leverage. He's better suited to play outside-in and squeeze and leverage plays with favorable angles. 

Flexibility: Hip mobility in space is somewhat limited and his turns in coverage appear a bit labored or rigid. He won’t flip his hips open to the degree necessary to really hit far-reaching zone drops without risking losing eyes on the quarterback. He’s got long, linear strides, so his change of direction skills are only adequate. 

Leadership: He's a tough player who endured a lot of hardship at Ohio State between a 2019 Achilles injury and multiple biceps injuries. He was an elder statesman for the Buckeyes after entering the program as a 5-star recruit, but well regarded for his team-first approach and willingness to embrace thankless roles. 

Versatility: Hilliard has served as a key piece on the special teams units throughout the course of his time in Columbus; this is where he will make his impact early on in the NFL. He has good straight-line speed, suitable length to boost his tackle radius, and a hot motor. Defensively, he showed the ability in 2020 to play on the LOS to jam tight ends or the comfort to play flexed out on the hash—although his coverage appeal in space isn’t to the degree in which you’d look for in a coverage backer. 

SCOUT GRADES

TDN Consensus: To Be Determined

Kyle Crabbs: 70/100

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