It seems as though the closer we get to the start of the regular season, the more we are hearing about the need for versatility and position flexibility. The Pittsburgh Steelers began to exercise that more in their second preseason game, particularly in the secondary.
One of the means by which they tested this was, in the later stages of the game, to put slot cornerback Mike Hilton back at safety. While he has practiced there a bit in the past in training camp, he had never formally worked there in a game setting, so getting that on tape was pretty meaningful.
“It feels pretty natural for me”, he told Ray Fittipaldo of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette about lining up at safety. “With me being a good tackler, I feel like I’ll be able to get people down in the open field. I feel like I’m still working on my range sideline to sideline, but that will come with time. But I feel pretty good”.
Head Coach Mike Tomlin did mention Hilton, as well as cornerback Cameron Sutton, as a couple of cornerbacks that he felt have safety capabilities when he was asked about the team’s decision not to address the position in the 2019 NFL Draft.
Hilton was originally signed by the Jacksonville Jaguars as a college free agent in 2016. He did not make the final 53-man roster, but later spent a brief period of time on the New England Patriots’ practice squad before finishing the year on Pittsburgh’s.
He entered the following season as a darkhorse candidate to make the team, but ended up emerging as their starting nickel, a job that he has held essentially consistently for two full seasons now. He figures to be their primary nickel defender once again this year, though they may deploy different personnel there situationally this year.
That could include a look in which Hilton is rotated back to the safety position, perhaps with Steven Nelson kicking into the slot and having Artie Burns or Sutton man the outside opposite Joe Haden, as just one theoretical example.
Early this month, the third-year cornerback told reporters after logging safety reps for the first time this offseason, “I’m still in the process of really getting in that room. I don’t get as many reps as I’m pretty sure they want me to, but I go out there and show that I’m able to communicate back there and be in position to make plays”.
Hilton was hoping to get a long-term contract this offseason as an exclusive rights free agent, but it’s fairly easy to see at this point that that is not going to happen. Nonetheless, he can show just how valuable he can be this season by making himself useful at multiple spots in the secondary.