While there often tends to be a gradual—or perhaps sudden—shift in the prevailing opinion about players when they leave your team (“he was never that good anyway”), the loss of cornerback Mike Hilton in free agency seems to be one that a lot of Pittsburgh Steelers fans are still feeling.
It helps that he also sort of embodied a lot of the qualities that are often attributed to Pittsburgh, as a football team and as an organization, a hard-working overachiever and all of that good stuff. You can see it on the field when he plays. Another former Steelers cornerback, Ike Taylor, he’s seen it, too, and he had some thoughts on his leaving.
I’m upset that Mike Hilton left”, he said on the Pat McAfee Show earlier this week. “I love Mike Hilton—and I knew it was gonna be hard to keep Mike—because he has the Pittsburgh Steelers personality. He’s a Steeler. But JuJu, JuJu’s been a Steeler before he was even drafted, his whole life”.
Taylor was already retired for a few years before Hilton ever came into the league, but it’s not uncommon for Steelers alumni to remain close with the team, and as a member of the media, he has always kept up with the comings and goings of his former team. He’s certainly been vocal this offseason.
A former undrafted free agent, Hilton originally signed with the Houston Texans as a rookie in 2016, but failed to make the team. He spent a brief period of time on the New England Patriots’ practice squad later that year, but finished the season on Pittsburgh’s practice squad.
A year later, he emerged as a dark horse candidate as early as rookie minicamp. He continued to raise his profile throughout the offseason, and ultimately won the starting nickel cornerback role. He rotated with William Gay for the first half of the first game of the 2017 season opener, but since then, his role has been basically unchallenged.
Even though Hilton missed four games due to injury in 2020, he still had one of his best seasons, posting a career-high five takeaways, with three interceptions and two fumble recoveries, as well as a forced fumble, eight passes defensed, and eight tackles for loss.
Following his four-year Steelers career, playing last season under a second-round restricted free agent tender, he signed a four-year contract with the division-rival Cincinnati Bengals for $24 million, so Pittsburgh will still get to see him twice a year at least for a while.
Fans don’t generally like it when a player signs with a rival, and for some players, that holds value. I do wonder what Hilton’s market was like, as some felt he could earn more. There were reports that he would be a hot commodity as a versatile slot defender, and he still got paid well.