Roster turnover is an inevitability in this league, but the Pittsburgh Steelers’ roster has changed considerably since the end of last season, with many players who have been important to this franchise now gone, either retired, in limbo, or in another uniform. As we wind down the time until training camp opens, it feels appropriate to acknowledge the old faces that we’ll no longer be seeing on the sidelines this year.
That includes Pro Bowlers and former high draft picks, as well as undrafted free agents of varying accomplishment. Four losses along the offensive line, multiple departures at linebacker and in the secondary, and other changes mixed in, will make for a rather different roster.
All the same, there are the steady presences that remain: the Ben Roethlisbergers, the T.J. Watts, the Cameron Heywards. Who will be the next long-term faces? Minkah Fitzpatrick will certainly be one. What about Cameron Sutton? Zach Banner? Kevin Dotson? Devin Bush? When will their names be included in this retrospective?
CB Mike Hilton
Is the loss of Mike Hilton, the Steelers’ starting slot defender for the past four seasons, as dramatic as many of the team’s coaches this offseason have seemingly made it out to be? Perhaps time will tell, but we’ll have to find out one way or another.
Originally undrafted in 2016 out of Ole Miss, Hilton first signed with the Jacksonville Jaguars, later had a brief stint on the New England Patriots’ practice squad, and landed on the Steelers’ late that season. By the start of the 2017 season, he was their starting nickel defender, a role he would never relinquish.
His rare versatility to play the pass, the run, and to rush the passer allowed the defense to do things with him and revolving around him that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to do, at least with much effectiveness, with just anybody in that role.
There are certain traits and characteristics that they covet from their slot defender, but they couldn’t match the Cincinnati Bengals’ four-year, $24 million offer this offseason as he hit unrestricted free agency, a deal that included a year-one cap hit of more than $5 million. The long-term deal prevented them from being able to use void years to reduce the cap hit, and nobody can blame him for taking the long-term deal.
But now Pittsburgh must find somebody else. Hints have been dropped that they are hoping for it to be Antoine Brooks Jr., a sixth-round pick out of Maryland last year. He spent most of his rookie season on the practice squad, but did log a couple dozen snaps in the slot in one game.
If it’s not him, then it will most likely be Cameron Sutton, who is otherwise taking over the outside spot previously occupied by Steven Nelson, a salary cap casualty. He’ll have to kick inside in the nickel and dime if they want their three best players at the position on the field, even if he lacks Hilton’s physical presence and pass-rushing instincts.