The best story of the 2017 season for the Pittsburgh Steelers was unquestionably, I think, the quiet rise of first-year cornerback Mike Hilton, who spent a bit of time in December 2016 on their practice squad as an undrafted rookie free agent.
The diminutive cornerback spent the entire spring and summer slowly but surely climbing the ranks, taking advantage of every opportunity that presented itself, including injuries to the likes of Senquez Golson and Cameron Sutton that bought him chances for higher-quality reps.
He went from a virtual unknown to a darkhorse to an opening-day starter in the slot, and held onto that job throughout the entire season, making an impact in all phases of the game, including run stops, interceptions, and sacks.
Not that Hilton was ever daunted by the odds that he faced. As he told the team’s website, he was told all his life that he was too small to play in the NFL, that he would never make it. Even as Golson, from the same school, went in the second round, Hilton went undrafted.
“A lot of people tell me you can’t do it because of your size. That is all I heard. I knew with my ability, I could play with anybody. I just don’t look the part. I catch people off guard”, he said. He overcame it by “just playing with confidence. I knew I had it in me. I have taken those steps, high school, college and now the pros. Just being confident in my ability”.
He gained a lot confidence from his first season in the league and finding that tangible success. He had about a dozen stops against the run during the year, leading all cornerbacks in run-stop percentage. He also recorded four sacks and two interceptions, getting his hands on several other passes.
For a player who is listed at just 5’9” and 184 pounds, one wouldn’t think that he would be able to have such a versatile skill set. But it’s what motivates him to do just that. “If you look at me, people are going to attack me and not expect me to play the way I do. I take that and play with a chip on my shoulder”, he told the team’s website.
He also grew up looking up to another undersized player, former safety Bob Sanders. If you think about it, watching Hilton play, that is about exactly the sort of player you would expect him to look up to. A former Defensive Player of the Year, Sanders was just 5’8”, but played with reckless abandon.
I don’t think that too many people will be looking past—or over—Hilton as he enters his second season. He showed against pretty much every opponent that he faced that he was not only willing but able to go up against anybody the offense lined up across from him, more than holding his own.