Thanks to a much improved roster, the San Francisco 49ers failed to sign a large class of undrafted free agents. This could be due to the number or lack of rookies the team could also bring to their off-season training.
Regardless, we only saw a few names related to the Niners once the draft was finished. One of those names was Ohio State linebacker Justin Hilliard, another Senior Bowl player.
Pro Football Focus listed the top 10 undrafted free agent signings from the 2021 NFL Draft, and Hillard was sixth on the list:
6. LB JUSTIN HILLIARD, SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
A five-star rookie outside of high school, Justin Hilliard was said to be the next big player in college football after receiving more than 35 top-tier program scholarship offers. Sadly, injuries derailed his first two years as a Buckeye, and it wasn’t until 2020 that we finally saw him on the pitch for a long time.
Hilliard was Ohio State’s top linebacker last season. He recorded a score of over 80.0 PFF in defense and race coverage, ultimately earning a third round score from PFF’s Mike Renner in PFF’s 2021 NFL Draft Guide. The gist of Hilliard’s screening report reads, “If he stays healthy, Hilliard has a comprehensive skill set that can fit into any pattern to the next level.”
The 49ers have lost defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, so it’s not certain the defense will have the same prowess they once did, but Hilliard should be a much-appreciated addition, especially with his value as an undrafted free agent. .
Sports Info Solutions ranked Hilliard as the eighth best linebacker on the weak side of the draft and gave him the same rating as his teammate Pete Warner, who was selected 60th overall:
Hilliard has a long history of injuries that some teams may not be able to get over, but he still has strong skills and a high engine to be a versatile reserve.
Hilliard is projecting himself as an alternate linebacker in the NFL who could play as both Will and Mike. His size and profile comfort him better as Will, however. He’s struggled with injuries throughout his career, but he still has the athletic skills to impact three tries if he stays healthy. His speed and tenacity should be appreciated on the kickoff and punt teams.
Unless Samson Ebukam starts at SAM linebacker and moves on to Edge Rusher in sub-packages, the third linebacker who starts for the 49ers will be an undrafted free agent. It will go to Azeez Al-Shaair, Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles and Jonas Griffith. San Francisco signed Nathan Gerry from the Eagles, but he was one of the worst cover linebackers in the NFL last year.
Hilliard has an uphill battle, but he won’t be competing with the draft picks that were picked early. His goal should be to earn a spot on special teams before carving out a role in defense.
This should be the goal of the majority of the draft picks on Day 3 and the UDFA.