Mike Hilton went undrafted out of Ole Miss in 2016. He spent the Summer with the Jacksonville Jaguars before being cut. The New England Patriots had him in the practice squad for a short period before the Pittsburgh Steelers got to him toward the end of that season.
He has had a fairly steady maturation since. He won the starting nickel job out of the gate the following year, playing over veteran William Gay, who would be reduced to dime work. Hilton’s second season in 2018 was a bit of a step back as he played through most of the year injured, but he rebounded with a strong 2019 campaign.
Now he is in a position in which he is poised to hit free agency in 2021 and potentially become one of the highest-paid nickel cornerbacks in the NFL, at least if he plays his cards right. And if that does happen, it will almost surely mean that it’s not in Pittsburgh, given their salary cap situation.
Speaking to fans on Steelers Nation Unite on Wednesday, he talked about his evolution as a player, particularly through the 2019 season. “I feel like over the last year, my progression has been good”, he said in response to one question.
“The defense is finding ways to let me be aggressive and go make plays in the backfield, but I also make plays in man coverage, and that’s a great sign”, he added. “I feel like if I’m comfortable, it just boosts my confidence, to make sure I’m in the right position, and able to make plays when I have the opportunity”.
Hilton is the sort of player who is able to fill the stat sheet. He is typically good for about 60 tackles, with six or more for loss, a sack or two, and a couple of takeaways between interceptions and forced fumbles and recoveries.
Since coming into the league, his ability to be a complete player despite his size has been his calling card. He is able to line up with wide receivers and running backs in man coverage out of the slot, but he can also play in the box and be aggressive against the run, and the team hasn’t been shy about blitzing him, either. He averages two-plus sacks per year (even if four of his 6.5 came in 2017).
Provided that he stays healthy, there is no reason to think that Hilton cannot continue his high level of play, and perhaps even have his best season yet. His greatest threat may simply be the potential for Cameron Sutton to play so well that the coaches start rotating him in to become the primary slot defender.