On one level, it must be a great feeling for a former fringe candidate to hear a coach talk about him as though he is a known commodity. So much of the battle of going from outside the bubble to making the team is answering questions about what you are or may be capable of doing in time, and even then, what follows is the process of proving it on the field.
As he heads into his fourth season with the Pittsburgh Steelers, it seems as though Mike Hilton, the 5’9” cornerback out of Ole Miss, has reached that status. In fact, he has been the team’s primary slot defender throughout that time. In his first game in the opener of 2017, he rotated in the first half with William Gay, but since then has almost exclusively controlled that job.
Especially given the limited offseason, that’s not likely to change. The Steelers like Cameron Sutton a lot, and he has played, and even started some games in the slot, but Hilton is the been-there, done-that guy, and there’s no reason to change.
“We know Mike Hilton and what he does”, defensive coordinator Keith Butler said of his nickel defender late last week, via a team-provided transcript. “He is a tough little dude. He has been doing it for a while. He is part of our front package when we are playing nickel and he moves around a little bit. We feel like he can blitz, I think he can be a threat as a blitzer. He does a good job of what we ask him to do”.
What the Steelers most value out of Hilton is the fact that he is multi-faceted. Not only does he have four interceptions and 25 passes defensed in his career, he also has six and a half sacks and 22 tackles for loss, along with 186 total tackles, in a little over 1800 career defensive snaps.
He is coming off arguably his best season in 2019, playing under a second-round restricted free agent tender. While he was looking for a new contract—even last year, he was already hoping to get extended—he surely realizes by now that he will be playing out the season and no doubt hitting the open market in March.
Considering the fact that the salary cap in 2021 may be as low as $175 million, and the Steelers already have more than that committed against the cap next year, the probability is high that this is Hilton’s last season in Pittsburgh.
At least, then, he will be able to play out the season knowing that his coaches know who he is and what he’s all about. They value him, but unfortunately that will not guarantee a continued working relationship beyond this season, in large part because he has shown that who he is and what he is capable of doing is worth more than they may be able to afford next year.