The way that the game has evolved over the course of the past couple of decades has allowed athletes of smaller and smaller stature to succeed, whether in full-time or specialized roles. With the refinement of the short, quick-footed slot receiver has also come the maturation of the slot cornerback, who is typically of similar stature and quickness.
The Pittsburgh Steelers appear to believe that they have one in Mike Hilton, going into his third season with the team, though just how convinced they are of that right now may be determined by whether or not they work out a long-term extension with him, as an exclusive rights free agent, later this summer.
Hilton, who stands at all of 5’9”, knows exactly how tall he is and how tall most of the people he’s playing against are. “I’m probably the smallest guy on the field 90 percent of the time”, he told Mike Prisuta, via the team’s website.
“I expect teams to come my way”, he added, talking about it as an anticipation and a responsibility that he embraces, rather than shrinks from. Over the last two years, he leads all slot cornerbacks in run stops, so he has the numbers to back it up.
“I feel like I’ll be in position to make those plays, I just have to find ways to make them”, though, he admitted. For as many plays as he has made, he also knows the ones that he has allowed to get away. Without dwelling on them—cornerbacks in particular need to have a short memory—the negative plays stick out for him more than the positive.
Over the course of his first two seasons, over 31 games, Hilton has recorded 111 tackles, including 16 for lost yardage, with five sacks, three interceptions, one forced fumble, and 14 passes defensed. And he played through an arm injury for most of the 2018 season.
Two years on, it’s hard to picture what this second would look like now, or would have looked like since 2017, without Hilton, who has been something of a revelation as a darkhorse prospect, a former practice squad player late in 2016 who would rapidly emerge and gain a starting role.
While the Steelers talked up new free agent signing Steven Nelson’s versatility, and his ability to play in the slot, there’s still nobody else on the roster with whom they should feel comfortable starting on the outside right now. Maybe Justin Layne can do it in time, but not now.
Right now, the Steelers’ best starting secondary undoubtedly consists of Joe Haden and Nelson on the outside with Hilton in the slot. Will this be different in 2020? Do the Steelers see it being different by then?