The Pittsburgh Steelers had one of the best slot cornerbacks in the league for the past four years. And now? Not. That is because they were unable to afford to re-sign Mike Hilton, who instead agreed to join the Steelers’ rivals, the Cincinnati Bengals, on a four-year contract worth $24 million, solid numbers for a slot defender in such a down market.
Pro Football Focus recently ranked the top 10 slot cornerbacks in the NFL, with Hilton being listed at number four, just ahead of new Cleveland Browns defender Troy Hill, whom they also signed as an unrestricted free agent. They trail only the Colts’ Kenny Moore, the Broncos’ Bryce Callahan, and the Patriots’ Jonathan Jones, Ben Linsey writing on Hilton:
Hilton has been the most disruptive slot blitzer in the league over the last four seasons. His 41 pressures since 2017 are 13 more than any other cornerback in the NFL, showcasing a great feel for timing on the blitz. But that’s not all he’s good for. Hilton ranks in the 93rd percentile in slot coverage grade over that same time frame. He should give Cincinnati’s defense a boost in a secondary that has been completely rebuilt in free agency over the last two offseasons.
Originally signed out of Ole Miss by the Jacksonville Jaguars, Hilton didn’t first cross paths with the Steelers until late in the 2016 season, when he was signed to the practice squad. He entered the following season as a dark-horse candidate to make the roster, and wound up spending the next four years as their slot defender.
Since then, he has played in 59 games, recording seven interceptions, 32 passes defensed, 237 tackles, 30 tackles for loss, 9.5 sacks, 23 quarterback hits, three forced fumbles, and five fumble recoveries, a diversity of stats that shows the versatility of his skill set, and which makes him so valuable.
Now, the Steelers are left trying to figure out how to replace him. In a normal offseason, it would be easier, but starting outside cornerback Steven Nelson was also a salary cap casualty. They re-signed Cameron Sutton, but he is going to have to step into a starting role.
To get into more nuance, it could still be that Sutton is the team’s slot defender this year, moving inside when the team is in nickel and dime defenses, while a fifth defensive back comes onto the field and lines up on the outside. That could be somebody like Justin Layne or James Pierre.
There are other options, such as Arthur Maulet, and some rookies, like Tre Norwood and Shakur Brown, who could also nudge their way into the conversation of stepping into the slot defender role themselves.
All of this is yet to be determined, which means the Steelers face uncertainty. They had a good answer to the question for the past four years. And now he is their rival’s answer instead.