Some of the smallest players in the league play with the biggest chips on their shoulder. In a way, they have to in order to succeed. Not only is it naturally more difficult for undersized players to perform at an NFL level with durability, there is also a bias in the selection process against them.
But the ones who are able to play with that chip on their shoulder tend to be the ones that make it, and Pittsburgh Steelers second-year cornerback Mike Hilton is one who managed to get over the hump last season, a year after spending most of the fall in 2016 without a job.
A 5’9” guy out of Ole Miss who was overshadowed by his second-round teammate, Senquez Golson, thanks to some gaudy turnover statistics, Hilton went undrafted in 2016, signed by the Jacksonville Jaguars. He did not make the 53-man roster, but spent a brief period of time on the practice squad of the New England Patriots.
He spent most of the season, however, at home, and nearly took a job at a local Foot Locker before he got the call from the Steelers, telling him that they wanted to sign him to the practice squad in December.
He would finish up the year there and showed enough to be offered a Reserve/Future contract, ending up making the most of the opportunity. He constantly drew positive attention to himself throughout the spring and into the summer before showcasing his abilities in the preseason.
He made plays in all phases of the game when given the opportunity, breaking up a pass, recording a couple of sacks, making run stops, and registering tackles while being used as a gunner on special teams. The completeness of his game really helped not just lock up a roster spot, but an opportunity for playing time.
He started the season rotating in the slot defender role with William Gay but took over the nickel job for his own by halftime of the opening game, and retained the role throughout the season. He led all cornerbacks in run-stop percentage, intercepted a couple of passes, and recorded four sacks in what was a very encouraging first season in the league.
But he is hungry for improvement. “I have a lot to learn”, he told the team’s website. “Hopefully, it’s only going to get better from here”.
One area that he said he would like to focus on is continuing to build up his strength. While his listed 184 pounds is good for his height, and plays with physicality, I think that he learned during his first real playing time that it isn’t quite enough.
“Maybe I can hold my leverage on some blocks against linemen”, he said. “There is still some work to be done”. To that end, you can find him on a typical day spending his time training on his own at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.
It’s not just strength, but also in the mental aspects of the game in which he seeks to improve. And he looks to players of a similar stature, naming Tyrann Mathieu, as guidepost. 2017 was a great start considering where he came from. But he is looking for more than a great start.