The Pittsburgh Steelers are slated to have 19 players hit the open market as unrestricted free agents in about a week and a half, provided that none of them reach new contracts before then. If that isn’t the largest number in the league, it is certainly near the top.
While that list of players includes a large number of names that figure to be relatively cheap to retain, like Cassius Marsh, Danny Isidora, and Jerald Hawkins, it also features some very prominent names and Pro Bowl talent, such as JuJu Smith-Schuster, Alejandro Villanueva, Bud Dupree, and James Conner.
Somewhere in the middle falls the middle class of the NFL, the sweet spot in which four-year veteran nickel defender Mike Hilton intends to make his home. A former undrafted free agent, Hilton did not catch on during his rookie season, but became the Steelers’ starting slot cornerback from the beginning of the 2017 season.
Seeing Villanueva having earned a new contract two years into his tenure, as an exclusive rights free agent, Hilton began seeking a new contract beginning in the 2019 offseason. It never happened, of course, and last season, he played under a second-round restricted free agent tender worth over $3.2 million.
He intends to make more than that in the next week or so. And at this point, he’s counting down the days. Since the end of the 2020 season, his focus has been all in on the future. “2021 Season Starts Now!”, he wrote right after the Super Bowl.
Since then, he’s quote-Tweeted a video of Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, defensive back of the New Orleans Saints, who captioned the video, “$ $ $”. On March 1st, he sounded the first bell, noting “16 days” until free agency. A week later, another update. “9 day”, he wrote.
— Mike Hilton (@MikeHilton_28) March 1, 2021
— Mike Hilton (@MikeHilton_28) March 8, 2021
Like That Fr 🔥 https://t.co/APYgSRRJmK
— Mike Hilton (@MikeHilton_28) February 20, 2021
With Hilton literally counting down the days until he is due to be paid, one wonders if this signals that the Drew Rosenhaus-represented free agent knows something that we don’t about the prospects of re-signing with the Steelers.
The slot defender market has risen steadily over the course of the past few years, and Hilton has clearly established himself as one of the top slot defenders in the league. Even while missing four games in 2020, he posted a career-high five takeaways, including three interceptions, while also posting three sacks and eight tackles for loss—not your typical defensive back stat line.
Are these the final days of a fan favorite as an official employee of the Steelers? It’s certainly possible. No matter the outcome, he is very ready for his future, and he should be. The reality is that he has been outplaying his contract for some time now, and he’s due to be paid his due compensation.
I’m sure we’d all like it to be in Pittsburgh, but in conjunction with everything else on their agenda, and with Cameron Sutton as an alternative, that would be tough to pull off—especially if they have any aspirations of keeping JuJu Smith-Schuster.