Player: Mike Hilton
Free Agent Status: Restricted
2019 Salary Cap Hit: $645,000
2019 Season Breakdown:
If Matt Feiler is not the most significant of the Steelers’ restricted free agents this offseason (I would argue that he is), then it would have to be three-year veteran cornerback Mike Hilton, who is the starting nickel cornerback on the defense.
A former undrafted free agent, Hilton bounced around as a rookie, but latched on to the Steelers’ practice squad by the end of the 2017 season. He would emerge as a successful darkhorse candidate for the opening-day nickel role, and he has effectively held that job since.
Perhaps inspired by teammate Alejandro Villanueva’s successful push to receive a new contract while still an exclusive rights free agent—he himself had talked about how he consulted the Pro Bowl left tackle—Hilton pushed, albeit lightly, to receive a new contract last offseason. His efforts were unsuccessful.
One wonders, while it was already unlikely, if it were not strongly influenced by the fact that he had a bit of a ‘down’ season in 2018 after playing a much more well-rounded game, especially in coverage, the year before. He played through most of the 2018 season with an injury, however.
At full health, he had arguably his best season to date for the Steelers in 2019. The biggest difference I found was that he appeared to be at the catch point in coverage more frequently, and that is reflected in the fact that he managed to post a career-high in passes defensed.
Of course, he remained a consistent contributor in all phases, finding success both in run defense, where he remains one of the best in the league at his position, as well as when he is asked to blitz, though it can be argued, certainly, that he is asked to blitz too frequently.
Free Agency Outlook:
Again, as with Feiler, the Steelers have some options with Hilton because he is a restricted free agent. One does wonder what kind of market there might be for his services if the team were to try to place an original-round restricted free agent tender on him to try to save money, since a team attempting to sign him to an offer sheet would not be asked to forfeit anything in compensation, and Pittsburgh would only have the right of first refusal.
They could, however, decide to take this route with the hope of nobody trying to sign him, and failing that, having done the legwork on negotiating a deal for him in the first place. Of course, that is a risk, with the possibility of a team structuring the contract in a way that the team can’t comfortably match.
Alternatively, they could do what they did with B.J. Finney last year and place a second-round tender on him, which would cost over $3 million. Or they could work out the long-term contract with him themselves. No matter what happens, it’s hard to imagine him not being in Pittsburgh in 2020.