Better Late than Never
In early February, one major draft board ranked Ohio State linebacker Justin Hilliard as the 439th overall prospect. There were 255 picks in last year's draft. A player ranked that low not only isn't projected to be drafted, he's not even a lock to be signed as an UDFA after the draft.
On a different major draft board, Hilliard is the 62nd ranked prospect, which would be a late 2nd round pick. That would make him a prime candidate for the Rams at pick 57. It is one thing to be a draft riser, but a potential tryout player isn't supposed to suddenly become a 2nd round draft pick.
What gives? Why are there two diametrically opposed views about Justin Hilliard and could he become a surprise pick by the Rams in the upcoming draft?
6 feet and 3/4 inch tall, 227 pounds, 30.75'' arms, 76 1/8'' wingspan, 9 inch hands (Senior Bowl measurements)
Sixth year senior (medical redshirt).
One of 4 OSU LBs in the draft. The other 3 were starters, Hilliard was a rotational backup who split snaps.
5 star high school recruit, the best OLB recruit in the nation and 17th overall recruit, per ESPN. Went to same high school as Luke Kuechly. Says that he likes to study Kuechly film.
Had meniscus surgery on knee in high school. Tore his right bicep in the spring of 2015. Tore his left bicep in the fall of 2016.
Core special teams player in 2017 and 2018, playing on all 4 special teams units. Continued to play on some ST units in 2019 and 2020.
Ruptured his Achilles in spring of 2019. Only got limited number of defensive snaps in 2019. Returned to school for his 6th season at OSU in 2020. PFF gave Hilliard a 82.2 run defense grade and a 81.0 pass coverage grade in 2020.
One of 7 team captains for OSU in 2020. Graduated with degree in marketing. Did externship with a pro wrestling company, WWE.
2020 (6 games): 33 tackles (20 solo), 5 TFLs, INT, FF, 3 FR.
Has 2 career INTs. Read an RPO well against Penn State in 2018 and QB threw the ball to him near the LOS. Got a key end zone INT against NW in the 2020 Big Ten championship game.
Jim Nagy, the executive director of the Senior Bowl and a former NFL scout, praised Hilliard, calling him one of the best performers at the SB. Nagy highlighted a play in the SB where Hilliard turns his hips and drops 12 yards in coverage while looking over his shoulder, then flips his hips around to locate a WR from the opposite side of the field, drives forward 4 yards, then reaches across the front of the WR without going through the back of him, breaking up the pass. Played both MLB and WILL positions at SB. Had some good reps in practice.
Pro Football Network wasn't impressed by Hilliard at the Senior Bowl. They liked his physicality in the blitz drill and said that he flashed range in coverage. They called him inconsistent, said his coverage ability was "uninspiring", said he wasn't sticky in coverage, too small, got routed in run defense, dusted in pass coverage and that he failed to establish draft buzz for himself.
ESPN 177th overall, 16th ILB (late 5th to 6th round)
CBSSports not ranked in top 150
PFF 62nd overall, 6th LB (late 2nd) (ranked higher than Jamin Davis, Chazz Surratt, Dylan Moses, Pete Werner and Cam McGrone)
Lance Zierlein 5.47 draft grade (compare to Jayon Brown 5.50 grade in 2017)
PFN 216 overall, 15th ILB (late 6th to 7th round) Bumped him up from 439th overall in early February and the 30th ranked ILB.
Kyle Crabbs called Hilliard a special teams and depth player.
Drafttek 361st overall, 16th ILB (UDFA)
Sports Illustrated 6th round, 8th ranked OLB. Ranked between Tony Fields (6th round) and Grant Stuard (7th round).
Tons of ST experience.
Lined up both inside and outside of the box.
Active and energetic on field.
Physical, plays a bit bigger than his size. Took on lead TE in the hole, delivering a physical blow. Big stick against pulling guard. Helped cause fumble on QB run with hard collision with guard.
Uses hands well to get by blockers. Wins hand fights against linemen. Fights well to pursue the ball.
I liked some of his plays where he doesn't even make a tackle or get to the ball. Reacts quickly to play action fake, uses hand swipe to beat combo block by LT, flows laterally, then as TE tries to block him, he swivels his hips to elude it while using his inside hand to knock down the arm of the TE, allowing him to continue on towards the RB. Used push pull move to shed LT quickly.
The RG climbs up to him and cut blocks him at thigh pad. Hilliard lands on his hands and knees, quickly pops right back up and keeps running laterally.
Uses hands to stay off of block, then jumps up in air at LOS to deflect the QB's pass.
Reads screen, runs by block and makes solid tackle in space on WR for TFL.
Tricky counter run where TE pretends to go in the opposite direction, then reverses and goes back the other way. Hilliard isn't fooled, he steps in the proper direction to set the edge, takes on the TE's block, disengages and defeats it to protect the edge effectively.
Defends speed option pitch by shedding TE, then making wrap up form tackle on RB.
Shoots through tap at LOS, beating extra TE, stuffing RB for TFL.
Found ball quickly with eyes, not fooled against read option. Pursues wide, passing Tuf Borland, who stepped in the wrong direction.
Has some pass rushing ability. Able to execute pass rush moves and counter moves. Physical against pass blocking RB.
Flashes some pass coverage potential. Isolated on TE out wide as a CB, positions himself well then looks back at QB, shows good ball skills by jumping up in air and high pointing throw to make nice catch.
Got INT in coverage drill at Senior Bowl off of Feliepe Franks on short pass for a FB. Decent reps in coverage against RB and WR. Stayed balance with feet apart, not falling for fake by WR, then plants and drives after break without taking a false step, made tackle after catch for zero YAC.
Has potential upside, because he's hardly played on defense, due to all of his serious injuries and because there were other players ahead of him on the depth chart at OSU. Maybe he could be a late bloomer.
Older prospect with long injury history.
Size of a 4-3 WILL linebacker without the athleticism to make up for his lack of size. I want a player his size to be fast and explosive and he appears to have just average speed, short area burst and agility.
Average pursuit range. Tries to pursue to sideline to cut off RB on option pitch. He's at the center of the field and has a longer distance to go than the RB, but the RB is known as a "build up speed" back who doesn't have great acceleration, probably runs about 4.6 in the 40. Hilliard runs to just outside the numbers and dives, but he can't make contact with the RB. Running from middle of field to defend bubble screen, not fast enough to close down angle to WR and gives up additional yardage.
Unable to close down angles and run lanes due to lack of speed burst. Doesn't run down plays well from behind. Play recognition with his eyes good some snaps, but he just can't run fast enough to make an impact play.
Slow to run to edge on wide run. Tries to go under TE block instead and gets out of position. This creates nice lane for runner and big gain.
Too small. Short yardage, lined up over center and tries to take him on, but gets pushed sideways, unable to disengage, causing the hole in the middle to widen for the runner.
Extra TE on line washes him down when he's the containment defender on the edge. Ends up about 3 yards from where he should be holding the point of attack, then shoved to knees on ground.
On ground too much. Gets pushed down by bigger blockers, can't free himself from them to stay alive and involved in the action. Doesn't have counter moves to get off of the block and go back in the other direction towards the RB. Uses proper technique to spill TE block, but gets taken to the ground and eliminated from the play.
Tries to crease the defense at the line, but gets washed down way to the inside by the TE, opening up a big hole.
On goalline, the TE pushes him backwards off of the LOS. This creates a bubble of distortion in the line, allowing the RB to score a TD. Bullied by RT in short yardage.
Offense comes out in a run formation and the defense lines up with Hilliard as the only LB in the box, in the middle. I knew even before the ball was snapped that this was going to be trouble. Why do football coaches set up their players to fail? I don't get it. Offense runs straight up the middle. Guard goes directly to Hilliard, who is too small with arms too short to do much about it, there is a gigantic hole and the RB runs for 35 yards.
Form tackle against RB in short yardage, but can only throw RB down 2 yards past the first down marker, not big or powerful enough to prevent the extra gain. Tackle can be broken, because he lacks length and is not a big player or explosive hitter.
Fooled by play action, tackles the RB, not realizing that it is a pass play. Fooled by trick play, leaves TE wide open deep, jumping on RB in flat instead. Fooled by PA, doesn't cover TE down the field.
TE acts like he's blocking on bubble screen. LB lunges forward and is beaten when TE releases for route, giving up 4 yards of separation.
Overpursued on wide run, opening up a huge cutback lane.
Uses his athleticism to get around block by guard, but this causes him to be outside of his assigned gap, not in proper relation to the other defenders. He's standing on the wrong side of one of his teammates. Took himself out of position trying to go backdoor against wide run.
Poor backpedal with small steps. Transition to pedal is clunky, not smooth or fast.
Too handsy in pass coverage. Man coverage limitations. Rarely used in man coverage. A few solid plays against TEs, but generally not relied on in coverage. OSU took him off the field in nickel, long 3rd downs and in late game passing situations when they wanted better pass rushers or coverage linebackers on the field.
Basic out route by WR. LB pops up in his stance at break point, unable to drive well on route, then nearly misses the tackle after the catch.
Not fluid flipping his hips to defend angle route by TE. Intentionally bumps into TE 7 yards from LOS to try to prevent separation, but still beaten cleanly when TE cuts inside.
Lined up over TE in slot. The TE sets a pick for the RB, rubbing off another defender. Hiliard sees what is happening, but for some reason doesn't switch and cover the RB, allowing the RB to be wide open in the flat for about a 15 yard gain.
Manipulated by QB pump fake, not sticking to TE in his area. Gets lost in zone coverage. WR in slot running a slant or skinny post. LB turns his back to the QB, trailing the WR and doesn't react to the break, the passing window is wide open for the QB's throw.
Doesn't play all the way to the whistle. Motor sometimes idles and looks like he tries to preserve energy and gas in the tank.
Didn't watch many of his ST plays, but one PR he got a tackle I thought he took a poor pursuit angle to the ball and just ended up making the play when a different defender slowed up the punt returner.
Pro Comparison and Grade
Devante Bond (Oklahoma, 6th round 2016, Tampa Bay Bucs.) Late round grade.
Bond was primarily a ST player for Tampa, but got some playing time when Kwon Alexander was injured in 2018. Bond was 6'1'' tall, 235 pounds, and ran 4.70 sec in the 40.
Jayon Brown was exactly the same height as Hilliard, 231 pounds, 31 3/8'' arms (hair longer, 74 3/8'' wingspan (smaller than Hilliard), ran 4.70 sec at the Combine and 4.56 sec at his pro day, with a 4.53 sec shuttle time (not too good.) If you like Hilliard, we could have compared him to Brown.
I'm not more excited about Hilliard, because I don't think he's fast enough and because he hasn't proven to be good at pass coverage. If he could be better than Travin Howard (7th round in 2018) and at least be a good ST player, I think it makes Hilliard a draftable player, but I don't see enough there to make Hilliard a 2nd to 4th round type draft pick.
Hilliard doesn't jump off the screen in his games. Every now and then he'd make a play, but it never rose to the level that I asked myself "Why did OSU start those other 3 LBs? Hilliard is clearly better than them." It is a nice story that he was able to bounce back from all his injuries and become a team captain, but I don't think he's special or a hidden diamond in this draft.