D. Ross Cameron-USA TODAY Sports

D. Ross Cameron-USA TODAY Sports


Playing in Fred Warner’s Shadow: Rookie Justin Hilliard May Prove to be a Big 49ers Addition in 2021

Don Atkinson
May 31, 2021 at 4:49 PM1


It was just three short years ago that the San Francisco 49ers took a chance on linebacker Fred Warner in Round 3 of the 2018 NFL draft. Warner was then a well-regarded but largely overlooked outside linebacker out of BYU, and only a few teams had him in their top tier at the position. In fact, eight linebackers went ahead of Warner in the draft that year, but the 49ers saw something special in the West Coast native and brought him home with the 70th pick overall.

That pick has already proven to be one of the best made by the franchise in the last three decades.

You would likely have to go back to 2013 (when Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman and Ahmad Brooks were on the field together) to find a group of linebackers that struck much fear in opposing offenses. There have been a few brief standouts at the position since, but until Warner arrived, there wasn't much about 49ers' linebackers that seemed all that imposing.

In 2019, the 49ers snatched another promising linebacker in the fifth round of the draft --- Arkansas' Dre Greenlaw, who had a great rookie season en route to the 49ers' Super Bowl appearance two seasons ago. Greenlaw is now the undisputed starter at the weak side linebacker position, and with Warner comfortably owning the middle linebacker spot, only the Sam linebacker position seems up for grabs. Azeez Al-Shaair, whom the team acquired as an undrafted free agent in 2019, has proven a tremendous value there, but is hardly a lock at that spot heading into this season. He could well be bumped from the starting role if the right player comes along.

There are other linebackers on the 49ers' early season roster, including third-year player Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles, second-year player Jonas Griffith and rookie Elijah Sullivan. But the 49ers seemed just restless enough about the linebacking corps that they added a few names via free agency. Fourth-year linebacker Nate Gerry (Philadelphia) was picked up by the team in March and veteran James Burgess (Green Bay) was signed just days ago. While no one in this group seems likely to far exceed the team's expectations, there is always the chance of a vastly overlooked player arriving to destroy conventional wisdom by not only making the final roster, but by making a significant impact once there.

Enter Justin Hilliard.

Based principally on his unfortunate injury history, including a torn meniscus, ACL injury and several torn bicep muscles, Ohio State's Hilliard fell out of the draft in 2021, and the 49ers picked him up as a rookie free agent soon thereafter. The specter of those injuries of course still lingers, but to his credit, Hilliard came out in his final college season and showed that he is an exceptional player capable of disrupting offensive plays.

Though his clocked speed isn't elite, and his 6'1"/230 lb. size make him more of an "old school" type linebacker, Hillard has shown a snap-to-whistle relentlessness and aggressive pursuit of both the football and ball handlers that make him a noticeable force on the field. His football intelligence is evident in his ability to read offenses and he's rarely out of position to make plays. Covering runs, his tackling angles are consistently right and for a linebacker his size, he's assertive and crisp in pass coverage. In all, Hilliard could be a solid three-down linebacker and in the majority of the time he was on the field last year, his smart but aggressive style of play drew considerable attention.

Sound familiar? It should, because those are some of the very same qualities the 49ers recognized in Warner back in 2018. But the similarities don't end there. Like Warner, Hilliard is intellectually gifted. An OSU Scholar-Athlete and Academic Big-Ten winner, Hilliard earned his master's degree last year. Hilliard was also OSU's Big Ten sportsmanship honoree in 2019 and, like Warner, was a Dick Butkus Award nominee. He volunteered his service to community-based charity missions to Costa Rica during his off-seasons.

Players who possess pro-caliber physical skills can find a home with any one of the NFL's 32 teams. But when those skills are combined with intelligence, commitment, community focus and character, that's the formula that often puts players on a track straight to San Francisco.

Though he's not likely to jump into a starting role as quickly as Warner managed a few years ago, that potential nonetheless exists if Al-Shaair struggles or gets injured. And as was proven last season, bad things can most certainly happen.

The most probable path for Hilliard to make it past the final cut this season is through exceptional special teams play, and he seems set up well to use that avenue to his advantage. It's not difficult to imagine Hilliard pancaking blockers and cutting down kick and punt returners behind the thirties on a regular basis, and that alone would hold significant roster value for the 49ers. On the shoulders of solid special teams play, the eventual jump to first spot reserve or even starting linebacker could be seamless for Hilliard if he shows an aptitude to learn and develop in the way it appears he can.

There is no guarantee Hilliard will end up on the team's active roster by Week 1. But what's on tape from Hilliard's 2020 season can't be denied, and the 49ers are particularly adept at finding phenomenal players not only late in the draft, but from the pools of the undrafted. The team clearly saw something in Hillard that it wanted and if he responds to meet the challenge in front of him, he could well be another example of the team's superior vision when it comes to spotting exceptional talent.

It's far too early to predict if Hilliard could ever play up to Fred Warner's level but comparing him to the collegiate version of Warner coming out of BYU, the elements are clearly there. Much will depend not only on Hilliard himself, but on the ability of the coaching staff to find opportunities for Hilliard to grow as an NFL player. With former linebacker DeMeco Ryans now driving the 49ers defense, there's every reason to be hopeful about Hilliard's chances.

Hilliard isn't Warner, but at the very least the 49ers have in him a potentially powerful starter to play alongside Warner at some point, and that's nothing to take lightly. A guy named NaVorro Bowman, after all, once played in the shadow of Patrick Willis. Maybe, with a little luck, the 49ers can once again catch lightning in a bottle.
The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.


1 Comment

  • Marissa Kenney
    Al Shahir is a testament to DeMeeco’s coaching. Sans injury Hilliard will surpass him at the Bye week. He may become a weapon in neutralizing mobile QBs, which could clinch the NFC West
    Jun 1, 2021 at 9:18 AM
    0

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