One of the most interesting players—and cases—on the Pittsburgh Steelers is the matter of nickel cornerback Mike Hilton. He has been defying the odds all along since coming in the league as an undrafted free agent, spending time with three different organizations during his rookie season in 2016, ultimately landing on Pittsburgh’s practice squad late in the year.
He was anointed a darkhorse candidate to make the team early next Spring when it became obvious that he was capable of making plays in shorts that isn’t often seen from other players in his same shoes. He not only made the team, but has preserved his role as the team’s nickel back pretty much since then.
Overall, he turned in a better season in 2019 than he did a year ago. Statistically, he finished the year with 63 tackles, including six for a loss (still fewer than the 10 he had in 2017), a sack and a half, five hits, an interception, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery, and a career-high 11 passes defensed.
Now entering his fourth season, Hilton is a restricted free agent. He was already looking for a long-term deal last summer as an exclusive rights free agent, so it goes without saying that he will be hoping to be obliged this time around.
And it would possibly make more sense this time, too, depending upon what sort of market might develop for Hilton. It’s not clear what the league-wide perception is of him as a nickel corner, though my feeling is he’s still not well-known.
As a restricted free agent who went undrafted, however, the Steelers would have to tender him at the second-round level in order to have any protection against losing him if another team wants to sign him to an offer sheet, and last year, that value was already over $3 million when B.J. Finney was in that boat (RFA tenders have nothing to do with position the way franchise tags would).
While Hilton would certainly like to get a contract hammered out, he’s not sweating it, according to Chris Adamski, who spoke to the three-year veteran for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review as the Steelers transition into the offseason. That’s much the same approach that he took last year.
He did talk about wanting a new contract in 2019, but he borrowed Alejandro Villanueva’s strategy, even if he didn’t get the same results. Villanueva, at the time an exclusive rights free agent with two years under his belt, was already a Pro Bowl left tackle when he was given a substantially below-market deal. But he showed up to everything and just went about his business, trusting that the ‘business’ business would take care of itself.
“Contract-wise, that will take care of itself”, Hilton told Adamski. I have to go out there and do what I do on the field, and I feel like I played well this year. Hopefully things work out in my favor”.
Realistically, the worst-case scenario is probably making slightly north of $3 million under a second-round RFA tender, and then getting a long-term deal (in Pittsburgh or elsewhere) in 2021. There could be worse outcomes.