Hilliard spent the preseason with the Vikings before being cut, after which he signed with the New England Patriots, although he didn't see much playing time in two games with them before being let go again. Prior to that, he had been with Tony Sparano's Miami Dolphins, who drafted him in the sixth round in 2008.
After the jump, I look in detail at footage from Hilliard's time in the league to evaluate some of his strengths and weaknesses.
Who is Lex Hilliard?
While he is mainly considered as a fullback now, Hilliard was a tailback in college at Montana. There he rushed for over 4,000 yards - including over 1,300 in 2005 - and caught 57 passes. In 2006, he suffered an achilles injury and missed the entire season and although he bounced back with another 1,000 yard season in his senior year, that may have robbed him of some speed. He only ran a 4.66 at the combine, although he did post impressive numbers in the short shuttle (4.03), vertical jump (36.5 inches) and broad jump (over 10 feet), so clearly he had some explosiveness and agility. Miami drafted him in 2008 and he spent his rookie year on their practice squad.
In 2009, he saw some action on special teams but finally started seeing regular action towards the end of the season - then as a backup tailback. He had a breakout game in Week 16, catching nine passes for 74 yards and a touchdown and rushing for another score. However, in 2010, he didn't play much, touching the ball just once on a three yard catch, but he did see regular action as a backup fullback and occasional halfback in 2011. When New England signed him in 2012, it was purely as a fullback, although he only played nine snaps in two games. It's assumed that's the role the Jets have in mind for him, but with their running backs struggling, maybe he can contribute at the tailback position too.
He is listed at 228 pounds so fits into that hybrid back mold that perhaps the Jets saw in Terrance Ganaway. He's not a 250 pounds pure blocking back like John Conner, but lacks the speed to be a conventional tailback. However, he should be able to run with some power and bring some versatility to the backfield.
Four seasons (plus one on Miami's practice squad)
Four starts, all in 2011
40 carries, 132 yards, two touchdowns (3.3 ypc)
26 catches, 210 yards, two touchdowns
93% catch rate
No drops or fumbles
One kick return for 14 yards
25 special teams tackles, including 14 in 2009 and nine in 2010, two missed tackles, one penalty (neutral zone)
One offensive penalty committed (false start)
Zero 20+ yard plays
One fumble recovery
One blocked punt recovery for a touchdown
Based on all the regular season footage I watched, here was my take on what Hilliard brings to the table, divided into categories:
Usage - As noted, Hilliard was mostly used as a tailback in 2009, but has been employed mostly as a fullback since 2010. While he isn't your classic lead-blocking fullback, Hilliard has been mostly used in that role over the last few years. The Dolphins under Sparano also occasionally used him in three back sets, typically in short yardage situations or the wildcat package. They would sometimes employ three backs with two fullbacks and one tailback in the backfield (and even employed the Wing T at one point). However, from that formation, either fullback was often an option to carry the ball too. In their wildcat package, they would often have Ronnie Brown taking the snap with a back either side of him. One would then run to the outside to make a block for Brown to follow and the other would go straight up the middle, sometimes getting the ball from Brown on the handoff. The Dolphins also employed him at times in a dual back set in passing situations, thereby giving one or both backs the option to stay in to pass block.
The most common assumption in the media is that Hilliard has been acquired to fill in temporarily for John Conner (and if he does well, maybe the possibility exists that they'll stick with Hilliard and get rid of Conner). That's probably true, but there's also a chance that adding Hilliard will bring about some versatility to the running game, perhaps with Conner in the game at the same time, or with Hilliard taking his place in certain packages, but Conner still operating as the main lead blocker. They could certainly run three back sets with both at fullback and I would suggest that Hilliard might be better equipped for some of those wildcat plays, because he should be more mobile in terms of getting to the outside. His versatility in general could be a positive thing for those packages and he'll obviously be familiar with the playbook, having played with Miami for the last few seasons.
Running Ability - The first thing that stands out about Hilliard's stats is his poor yards per carry average. However, this is somewhat misleading because he was used so much in short yardage situations. On the basis of all the footage I watched, I've calculated his success rate in short yardage situations to be 80%. That happens to be somewhere that the Jets have been struggling - to the point where they've been reluctant to even try running the ball in those situations. However, there were several examples of Hilliard driving the pile in short yardage situations, so he was able to get a first down even when there wasn't a hole. He even converted a short yardage situation earlier this year with the Pats, so although they hardly used him, clearly they saw his worth in that area.
What Hilliard doesn't bring as a runner is any breakaway ability. He has never had a 20-yard play (as a runner or a receiver) in the NFL. Having said that, he did have a 39-yard touchdown run in preseason in 2009. He does flash the ability to get to the second level though. On his first ever carry, on 3rd and 15, he broke two tackles and drove the pile downfield to pick up 18 and a first down. That remains the longest run of his career, although he averaged just 3.2 yards on the rest of his carries that year. He did have a respectable 2.9 yards per carry after contact though. Other than as a short yardage back, he's pretty limited as a runner, although he scored one touchdown on a Jet Sweep out of the wildcat formation. His other touchdown came as the Dolphins had first and goal from the eight yard line and just gave it to him three times until he scored (although, after it clearly looked like he broke the plane on second down, it actually looked like he didn't on third down). On just 40 career carries, he has broken nine tackles, although that may be a little misleading because only one of them came since the end of the 2009 season and his move to fullback.
Run Blocking - Conner's biggest problem since getting in the league has been that he is sometimes inconsistent with sustaining his blocks. Often that's a product of trying to "light up" a guy in the hole, which - with NFL players - often means they just bounce off you and make a play. Hilliard, being a little smaller also sometimes lets guys get off his blocks to make plays, but it's usually more to do with him getting overpowered or losing the leverage battle. However, his lack of size doesn't necessarily stop him from making conventional fullback blocks. I saw one play where he met a linebacker in the hole and drove him out of the play. He also handled Muhammad Wilkerson last season, to set up a huge lane for a 28-yard Steve Slaton run. As you'd expect, he does look better than Conner at getting out on the move to make a block in space, although he did sometime miss his target at the second level.
He's not a dominant blocker by any means, but he didn't seem to blow too many assignments and there were only a few plays where guys threw him aside to make plays - the worst of which was in his own end zone and led to a safety.
Pass Protection - Hilliard had some issues in pass protection in 2009, giving up two sacks, two hits and one pressure in 39 pass block sacks. Both sacks were by Lamarr Woodley in the last game of the regular season. He also got beaten for a hit that led to an interception. Since then, he's only given up two pressures and no sacks or hits in 38 pass blocking snaps. That may be a product of him becoming a fullback and perhaps improving his strength because on some of those 2009 plays, he was driven off his spot and didn't keep a strong base. Conner has never looked that good in pass protection, so Hilliard could be an upgrade here too.
Receiving Threat - As a receiver, Hilliard was useful as a safety valve out of the backfield. Looking at the footage, it was basically the same play over and over again - he ran a diagonal to the flat, then caught the ball and turned upfield. On a few occasions, he had the speed to beat the linebacker to the outside and turn it into a decent gain, although his longest play was only 18 yards (on two occasions). One of these came as the quarterback scrambled around on 3rd and 13 and he found a soft spot for a dump off, which he caught in stride to get the first down. He also had two touchdowns in consecutive games at the end of the 2009 season on the same dump-off play - one where he dived for the pylon and another where he was wide open for a walk-in score.
Hands - Another impressive stat that jumps out is that Hilliard caught 20 passes on 20 targets in 2009. Since then, he's caught six of eight. Having said that, all of these were dump-offs, as he has never been thrown to more than 10 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. Still, that's a good sign of how reliable he is in the short passing game, which might be a good way to get Sanchez into a rhythm and create holes for the running game by stretching the defense. There was one play where he juggled the ball and was tackled for no gain, but otherwise, he was very sure handed. He also has zero fumbles in his NFL career.
Special Teams - Hilliard has been a good contributor on specials teams. He was productive as a tackler, especially in 2009 and 2010, and also contributed in other ways, for example as a blocker on the kick return unit and on the punt return unit where he scored a touchdown on a blocked punt in 2011.
Attitude - Hilliard seems to have a positive attitude, as summed up by this quote, which perhaps is the sort of positive example it makes sense to add to the team:
"I'll play whatever. It may have to be on special teams. I'm ready to go. I'm ready to do whatever it takes to help the Miami Dolphins win."
(Obviously, replace "Miami Dolphins" with "New York Jets" within that quote).
I didn't see too many brain cramps and missed assignments by Hilliard, although there was a miscommunication on a draw play which indirectly led to Chad Henne's season ending injury last year and there was also one play where he recovered a muffed kickoff at the one and took a knee in the endzone, which should have been a safety, but he got lucky with the call.
This might be exactly what everybody says it is - a temporary move to replace an injured starter - but Hilliard may bring some things that the Jets currently lack and therefore end up making a positive contribution. He's not a great blocker, but might be more consistent than Conner. He's not a dynamic runner, but might be a better short yardage option than anyone on the roster. He might also give them a bit of backfield versatility that could allow them to run certain packages more effectively, including the wildcat. Indications are that he'll also provide a positive attitude and a good understanding of the playbook.
Let's hope he brings something...however long he's here.