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Suspension won’t help Justin Hilliard’s bid to stick with Giants

Hilliard spent most of his rookie year on IR

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at San Francisco 49ers Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Giants’ linebacker corps may be lacking in elite talent, but the group is getting more and more crowded.

Among the hodgepodge of rookies and young veterans sits Justin Hilliard, a second-year undrafted free agent with an injury history that has kept him from realizing his potential. Does he deserve another crack at the 53-man roster?

By the numbers

Height: 6-foot-1
Weight: 231
Age: 25
Position: Linebacker
Experience: 2 years
Contract: Year 2 of three-year, $2.455 million rookie deal | 2022 cap hit: $825,000

Career to date

Hilliard will miss the first two games of 2022 with a suspension for PEDs — just the latest in a long line of absences that have characterized his career so far.

Hilliard spent six years at Ohio State but started only eight games as he dealt with injuries almost every year. Still, he emerged as a locker room leader and was voted a team captain during his final season.

He finally broke out near the end of his career, beginning with a game-sealing interception in the 2020 Big Ten championship game against Northwestern. He then totaled 16 tackles in the Buckeyes’ two national playoff games. He finished the year with 33 tackles, 20 of them unassisted.

However, that wasn’t enough for Hilliard to hear his name called on draft day. He signed with the San Francisco 49ers as an undrafted free agent but was waived early in the season.

Hilliard appeared in two games for the Giants on special teams after they claimed him in early September, but he was placed on injured reserve in October with an ankle injury and did not return to the field.

2022 outlook

Hilliard lacks elite size and athleticism, but he partially makes up for it with a physical play style and good instincts.

Despite a mostly wasted rookie year, there’s still a chance that Hilliard gets a look on the 53-man roster once his suspension ends. The Giants are thin at linebacker even with Blake Martinez’s expected return from injury. Depth remains an issue. Last year, low-end players like Tae Crowder were forced into starting roles once Martinez went down.

However, Hilliard still faces an uphill battle to avoid the practice squad. He’ll be competing for a spot with Carter Coughlin, fifth-round pick Micah McFadden and sixth-round pick Darrian Beavers, all of whom probably will begin training camp with a higher pedigree than Hilliard in the coaches’ minds. The suspension certainly does not help.