Of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ project starting secondary for 2019, none of the top three cornerbacks will have been draft picks of the team. Their top defensive back is Joe Haden, whom they signed to the biggest free agent deal in team history in August of 2017. They brought in Steven Nelson in free agency this year. In the slot is Mike Hilton, a college free agent who kicked around with two teams before joining the Steelers.
Hilton spend time in the team’s practice squad as a rookie in 2016 but emerged as a dark horse candidate to make the 53-man roster the follow year. He not only did that, but also succeeded in acquiring the starting nickel cornerback spot, which he has held—for the most part—over the past two seasons.
As one of the many young players in the secondary, however, he and all the others still find themselves turning to Haden, the veteran, for guidance, or for whatever else they might need, to pick his brain and cull knowledge from his near-decade of experience playing football professionally and often doing so at a high level.
“Joe’s that vet, man. He’s been around the game for a long time”, Hilton told Missi Matthews of Haden’s role in the cornerback group. “He really takes pride in what he does on the outside, and he also cares about what everybody else does at their positions. He takes time to talk to you, make sure you’re seeing the same thing he sees on film, or vice versa. So Joe’s a guy that everybody looks up to in the room”.
Haden is not only one of the team’s better defenders, but also among their underrepresented and under-acknowledged leaders. He has seen and done an awful lot in his time, even if he has only played in one postseason game in his entire career.
Now entering the final season of a three-year, $27 million contract, he is a candidate for a possible extension later this summer, when most of such deals get done, in contrast to the fact that Maurkice Pouncey had already received his in advance of free agency.
As was the case in 2018, Haden will have a cap hit of nearly $12 million in 2019, including a $10 million base salary. Nearly $2 million is also carried over in proration from his original $5.75 million signing bonus.
If the Steelers wish to extend him, say for perhaps two more seasons, they could potentially lower his cap hit by turning a portion of his base salary into a signing bonus that could be spread over the life of the contract. Not that there is a pressing need for cap space. In other words, they don’t need to cut him to sign their draft class.