It shouldn’t be a surprise when a team’s starting nickel back is the smallest player on the defense out on the field. The Pittsburgh Steelers’ Mike Hilton is no exception to that, standing at 5’9”. But he told Jacob Klinger that he did put on weight. He said that he added seven pounds of muscle from last year, and for a specific reason: trying to stay healthy.
He only missed one game, but an elbow injury suffered all the way back in the third week of the regular season in 2018 lingered throughout the remainder of the year and he suggested that it affected his on-field performance. He believes the added muscle can help him prevent injuries.
“I feel good at this weight and we’ll see how well I carry it throughout the season”, he told Klinger. And for Hilton in particular, it certainly isn’t a bad idea. He may go up against smaller wide receivers in coverage in the slot, but he also has to take on ball carriers in the running game and goes after the quarterback on blitzes as well.
Over the course of the past two seasons, he is among the league leaders in defensive stops against the run and in quarterback sacks among cornerbacks. In quarterback hits, as well. So it certainly wouldn’t hurt to put on some weight for those purposes, even if that is not how he was originally injured.
Hilton is entering his third (accrued) season in the NFL after originally being signed as a college free agent by the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2016. He would go on to spend time on the New England Patriots’ practice squad that year before finding his way to Pittsburgh’s.
He has been the Steelers’ primary nickel defender for the past two seasons, intercepting three passes with 14 passes defensed, five sacks, two recovered fumbles, and 111 tackles in that span. In spite of his size, he has largely stayed healthy, or been able to play through injury, missing just one game out of 32.
So far through the first round of OTAs, it has been business as usual for him, lining up with the starting defense as the nickel cornerback, but there was a period late last year where it seemed as though the team was considering making a switch to Cameron Sutton.
Will the Steelers open up the spot this year for competition? That remains to be seen, but Hilton doesn’t appear to have any interest in giving up his role. He does have an interest in receiving a contract extension even though he was only an exclusive rights free agent this offseason. Perhaps in 2020 he may get a multi-year deal.