From now until the 2021 NFL Draft takes place, we hope to showcase as many prospects as possible and examine both their strengths and weaknesses. Most of these profiles will feature individuals that the Pittsburgh Steelers are likely to have an interest in, while a few others will be top-ranked players. If there is a player you would like us to analyze, let us know in the comments below.
#47 Justin Hilliard, LB, Ohio State — 6024, 229 lbs.
- Plays faster than his 4.81 40 time from Pro Day, with plus burst and acceleration.
- Pristine tackler — his tape is what coaches should be using to teach their players at lower levels. Makes STRONG contact up high, plants players into the ground with force. No arm tackles or dives at legs unless absolutely necessary.
- Better chance of escaping prison than escaping one of his tackles when he delivers that hard contact up high.
- Stays out ahead of outside runs, takes position to force a counter/cutback; launches in at head of play to initiate contact when counter isn’t used. Will rack up TFLs in run D.
- Gets penetration attacking rushes to his edge. Sorts through traffic to hit the runner on crowded plays up the middle, stays centered on carries up the middle playing in the box.
- Keeps his head in the backfield on RPOs, quickly locates the ball and stays with it; stays in position as play unfolds to deny QB/RB an outside path.
- Uses acceleration and burst for quick crash downhill on passes below him.
- Attacks screen passes with ferocity, recognizes immediately and gets downhill toward target. Can shed blocks from receivers, smaller tight ends, blow up plays behind or near the LOS.
- Keeps focus on the QB in Zone to recognize desired targets and intended direction of throw.
- Has the athleticism and reaction time to stick with TEs along the stem in Man.
- Gets low, uses burst to get by RB/FBs in pocket to rush passer.
- Major clutch performer, gets around the ball for big plays in the biggest situations.
- Has to improve angles taken to ball carrier in open field, leaves space for players to hit the edge and use speed to get by him.
- Doesn’t shed quick enough against blocks from OL, larger tight ends to attack runner or apply pressure to pocket.
- Doesn’t play aggressive enough in Zone coverage, surrenders shorter throws with room to run after catch.
- Slow to relocate or survey neighboring Zones in coverage, will sit in his empty zone rather than move to neighboring area for support.
- Tendency to get tunnel vision on QB, put all focus on watching eyes and fail to notice nearby receivers.
- Undersized to be an NFL linebacker — height (6004), weight (229 pounds), hand size (8 7/8”) all come in below desired measurements.
- Injuries a permanent concern after two season-enders in college, multiple other serious injuries.
- Sixth-year graduate senior from Cincinnati, Ohio.
- Started seven games over final two seasons, appeared in 47 career games; played 12+ games every year from 2017-2019, played in six of eight in shortened 2020 season.
- Named team captain in 2020 despite not being expected to start; received full-time role midway through year after injury to Tuf Borland.
- Arrived as five-star recruit, top 50 in nation; ranked number one player in Ohio, different outlets rated him the No. 1 OLB and ILB in class. Chose OSU over Alabama, Iowa, Michigan, Notre Dame, 30+ offers.
- Played only three games first two seasons because of bicep tears in each arm. Also suffered torn meniscus as freshman, torn achilles in 2019 spring practice
- Career Stats: 47 games, 84 tackles (53 solo), 9 TFL, 3 FR, FF, 2 INTs.
- 2020 Stats: 6 games, 33 tackles (20 solo), 5 TFL, 3 FR, FF, INT.
- Twice honored as Academic All-Big Ten and Ohio State Scholar-Athlete.
- 2020 PFF Grades: 82.4 Defense (#12 out of 396 FBS linebackers), #21 Run Defense (82.2), #16 Coverage (81.0), #77 Pass Rush (72.6), #203 Tackling (65.9).
- Participated in the 2021 Senior Bowl.
- Measured with 8 7/8” hands, 31 3/8” arms, a 75 1/4” wingspan at Ohio State’s Pro Day. Ran a 4.81 40, 4.34 short shuttle, 7.20 three-cone, posted 27 bench reps, a 34.5” vertical, and 9’6” broad jump.
- Still only 23 despite six years at Ohio State.
On a roster filled with future NFL Draft picks and featuring elite, first-round players, it was the forgotten sixth-year senior Hilliard who was one of the biggest reasons the Buckeyes made it to the College Football Playoff’s championship game.
Clutch performances in the CFP semifinals against Clemson and Big Ten Championship against Northwestern gave Hilliard’s turbulent ride at OSU a movie-esque conclusion. After arriving as a heralded, five-star recruit, injuries robbed Hillaird of his first two seasons on campus. He spent the next two seasons as a back-up before getting a chance to start the back half of 2020, where he put himself on the draft radar with his play in the postseason.
Hilliard was used primarily as a Sam linebacker with the Buckeyes as a sixth-year graduate player. Ohio State lined him up in the second level across from the tight end or off the edge of the line, and also sent him out into more of a slot role to defend in coverage.
Hilliard showed considerable ability to defend against the run on the outside, and immediately recognize and disrupt screen plays. Here are a pair of stops in the CFP semifinals against Clemson that show Hilliard’s ability to rise to the big stage and play plus defense on the outside. The first comes when lined up just off the edge of the line. Hilliard’s first move is to get outside to deny an open lane toward the sideline. He sheds the block of the tight end, and displays his best trait: His tackling ability.
Meeting Travis Etienne head-on, Hilliard delivers a powerful shot, scooping up Etienne and planting him to the turf, erasing any chance of a broken tackle or Etienne reaching for the line to gain.
Hilliard displays that tackling ability every snap, consistently making powerful contact and sure tackles with excellent form and strength. Here is the second play against the Tigers — Hilliard is lined up out in coverage across from star receiver Amari Rodgers. He diagnoses the screen pass to Rodgers and breaks downhill, again dodging the block of the tight end. Hilliard launches at Rodgers, again making hard contact and bringing down Rodgers without allowing the chance of a missed tackle.
Hilliard’s run defense playing over the line in the box is not at the level of his talent defending from outside the line, but is still a positive aspect to his game. In a pair of plays in the title game against Alabama, he showed a similar ability to stop plays at or behind the line, with strong tackling.
First, aligned across from the tight end on the left side, Hilliard sheds the block as Najee Harris approaches his side of the line, and meets the powerful Harris with strength to immediately take away his momentum for the stop for no gain.
Earlier in the game, he creates strong penetration from his spot again playing across from the tight end, this time from the right side (two angles of the play below). Hilliard uses his burst and acceleration to attack through the lane before the receiver can get over to hit the block. Facing the powerful Harris, Hilliard closes and delivers a strong pop that likely results in a TFL even if Harris doesn’t slip trying to cut away from him.
Hilliard’s work in coverage has both its positives and negatives. The positive comes from his ability to Man up tight ends and even receivers on occasion on routes down the field. Here is his best example, against Northwestern in the Big Ten Championship. Lined up out wide against the tight end, Hilliard keeps himself in position to make a play on the ball. As it arrives, he gets in front of his man for the clutch interception.
Where he needs to improve is in defending shorter passes, and being more aggressive in doing so. Here against Clemson and Alabama, Hilliard surrenders a pair of easy completions. On the Clemson play, lined up against the slot receiver, Hilliard doesn’t play close enough to the break point, allowing an easy completion for the first down. And against Alabama (two angles) in Zone against Harris, Hilliard gives up too much cushion, permitting not only the easy completion but also giving Harris enough space and time to make a move to get free. Once again, the play results in a first down for the offense.
One final issue with Hilliard’s tape is simply a lack of it. A pair of bicep injuries cost him a chance to start his first two seasons, and potentially become a key piece of the defense for more than just the back half of his sixth season. The film he put together in those final games of 2021 and at the Senior Bowl was good, but a larger sample size would be of bigger help to those trying to grade him out as a player.
Hilliard showed the drive to succeed in continuing to pursue his career at Ohio State over six years, despite major injuries that took away the start of it as a prized recruit. That drive was rewarded with a chance to prove himself to be a clutch player for the Buckeyes, and be one of the key reasons why it was Ohio State both making the playoffs, and playing in the title game.
Hilliard showed skill in defending the run and playing in a Sam role for Ohio State, enough to envision him handling a similar position at the NFL level. He uses his athleticism well, and stays in position to attack the run to the inside or outside. He also channels that athleticism in playing in coverage, though improvements must be made there to be an every-down starter in the NFL, and not someone brought in to specifically defend against the run. His tackling ability is more than NFL-ready, and he is capable of making some highlight-reel stops that set a tone for a defense with his plus strength (27 bench reps at his Pro Day).
Hilliard will have to continue fighting an uphill battle in his career. He has to overcome a lack of film from his college years, and in the NFL would be undersized in every metric except arm length. Because of that, Hilliard is not a strong player to bet on being drafted on Day 2. He could go early on Day 3, however, potentially even as high as the middle of Round 4. Whatever team drafts him will have a player who can be a backup as a rookie and core special teams player, and a potential starter if they can build off of the level of play he displayed when finally getting his chance to start for the Buckeyes last season.
Projection: Early Day 3
Games Watched: (2020/2021) vs. Alabama, vs. Clemson, vs. Northwestern, at Michigan State, vs. Indiana, Senior Bowl