The Pittsburgh Steelers are an organization run under a series of guidelines in the form of precedents and principles. It takes a lot to get them to deviate from either of them, but especially from precedents. They have made two exceptions in recent years under exceptional circumstances: first for Antonio Brown, and then for Alejandro Villanueva.
Brown’s talent was such that he demanded an early contract after two years. The Steelers saw what kind of talent he would be, and when they realized that Mike Wallace would not be signed long-term, they locked him up early.
He proved his greatness to the point where the front office once again moved its own goalposts to funnel ahead a total of an extra $4 million in to the final two years of his contract (prior to the year in which he received his last extension). You only do this when you have to.
Or when you want to. In the case of Villanueva, it was both. He was in his age-28 season when he hit year three, going into his third as the team’s starting left tackle and with Pittsburgh really having no alternative. And he was also playing very well. His postseason run in 2016 and in the several games leading up to it were exceptional.
We all know Villanueva’s background, so I don’t think I need to explain the off-field motivation to do the decorated Army Ranger a ‘solid’ by giving him what turned out to be a very modest contract for a starting left tackle one year earlier than they might have ordinarily.
This is a long-winded way of saying that Mike Hilton’s case for receiving a long-term contract heading into his third season as an exclusive rights free agent is a lot less compelling than Villanueva’s, and so it’s going to be more difficult to get the front office to move the goalposts once again.
For one thing, the Steelers never demoted Villanueva, or started rotating in somebody else at his spot, as they did with Hilton toward the end of last season. The team also already has two starting cornerbacks, and they have or could more easily obtain competition for the nickel position than they can for left tackle.
Hilton’s 2018 season was a step down from the previous year, especially in terms of coverage, as well. I’m not confident that the Steelers are confident he is a long-term option at the position. The only way a deal gets done is if it’s an aggressively modest one.
Matt Feiler is in a similar position, but there has been no report nor indication that he intends to pursue a long-term deal as he enters his third accrued season after three years on practice squads prior to that. For one thing, in his case, he’s not even guaranteed to be the starter.
As much of a fan I am of Hilton, I don’t think there’s enough assurance at this point in time that he is a long-term type of anything that would justify going beyond a one-year exclusive rights contract right now, the way the organization sees it, but we’ll find out later this offseason.