Third-year Pittsburgh Steelers slot cornerback Mike Hilton is looking for a few things this year. First and foremost, he would love to earn himself a new contract, which will be a tough ask given his position. While he is the primary nickel back, they do have options outside of him, and he will only be a restricted free agent in 2020. Beyond that, he’s also looking to get more turnovers. He has three interceptions in his two-year career.
And he’s looking for a bigger role as well. Not more snaps. Not working on the outside (the slot is “where I’m most comfortable”, he told Chris Adamski). But taking on more responsibilities, as a leader, both on the field, within the defense, and in the locker room as well.
“I know, especially in our room, I am trying to take on more of a leader role”, he told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review during the team’s first slate of OTAs last week. “Trying to be more vocal while also take accountability for myself”.
In terms of the makeup of the roster, it’s not exactly a ridiculous notion. Outside of their two starting cornerbacks, Steven Nelson and Joe Haden, he can make the case that he is the next player in the hierarchy.
In the recent past, that might have been Artie Burns, the team’s 2016 first-round pick, but he has fallen tremendously over the course of the past year, to the point where he is legitimately fighting just to hold on to a roster spot, where he would best hope to dress by playing on special teams.
There is Cameron Sutton and Brian Allen, a pair of third-year players like Hilton. They were drafted, but the latter has spent far more time actually on the field. Allen will be competing with Burns just to make the team. He already started last season on the practice squad.
And who else is there? Rookie Justin Layne. I think it goes without saying that he is not going to immediately come in and present himself as a leader. The young man is going to take a back seat and spend some time learning, or at least that is what he is probably being advised to do, before he decides to open his mouth.
Hilton for all intents and purposes has been the team’s number three cornerback for two seasons already, and even had experience on the practice squad the year before that, so he is among the most ‘veteran’ players in the group. In fact, he has been here longer than any other cornerback on the roster outside of Burns, which admittedly is an interesting thought.
Provided that his performance from last season stabilizes, I could certainly see him falling within the chain of leadership. He is already a respected contributor, and his role in the slot is actually awfully important as a hub of communication. Just ask William Gay, who was that valued slot starter for years.