This time last year, Mike Hilton was with the Pittsburgh Steelers, but he wasn’t allowed anything but a practice uniform. He was, of course, a practice squad player at the time. The Steelers signed him to the practice squad not even a month earlier, on December 13, after he was cut by the New England Patriots, and previously, the Jacksonville Jaguars, the team that signed him after the 2016 NFL Draft as an undrafted free agent.
Suffice it to say that the Ole Miss product has come a long way since then, from a practice body to a starting member of one of the top teams in the NFL. Their 13-3 record this year was not bested by anybody. And Hilton’s play contributed to that.
As a first-year player, he rotated with William Gay for the nickel cornerback role in the opening game of the season, but took it over entirely by game two. He went on to record 64 tackles, two interceptions, six passes defensed, a forced fumble, and four sacks, three of which came in one game—the most by a cornerback ever.
“Being cut twice, not really getting an opportunity, and then a year later, I’m part of one of the best defensive units in the NFL”, Hilton told Lauren Kirschman, “it’s a special moment and you never take it for granted”.
Hilton was far from a sure thing to make the Steelers this year. He was retained as a Reserve/Future signing at the end of their season on January 24, and now, nearly a year later, is preparing to play his first postseason game.
At this point last season, Pittsburgh was retaining much of its secondary from the year. Artie Burns, the rookie first-rounder, came on by the end of the season and started. Ross Cockrell looked to be developing, while Gay played at a high level in the slot.
In free agency and through the draft, the Steelers added Coty Sensabaugh as a veteran and Cameron Sutton and Brian Allen as third- and fifth-round rookies, respectively. And they were looking to finally see former second-rounder Senquez Golson on the field.
It was hard to imagine Hilton making the team. After all, they already had seven players to look at just from the above list. And yet he not only made it through that competition, he even survived the late addition of a starter in Joe Haden.
And Haden has loved what he has seen from his young teammate. “He’s so young, he doesn’t really know how good he’s doing”, he said. “He’s just out there trying to do what the coaches tell him, working his tail off, studying his tape and making plays”.
“I think the good thing about it is”, he added, “this is just what he does. He’s just out there playing football, having a good time”.