Mike Hilton chose to sign with the Cincinnati Bengals this offseason after spending the past four years as the nickel defender for the Pittsburgh Steelers. He played his first game against his former team on Sunday, a victory, and according to teammate Tyler Boyd, he did an awful lot of talking leading up to it.
According to the Bengals’ website, Hilton addressed the team twice leading up to Sunday’s game against the Steelers, touching on his own experiences within the rivalry, and as a member of the Steelers. “He was just saying how basically, how he didn’t feel valued by them“, Boyd said.
“He was their leading turnover guy a year ago, and for them not to invest in a guy like him is kind of insulting because you know how good you are”, he continued. “You feel like you mean a lot to the team and organization and they just turn around and stab you in the back. I mean, I don’t know what the situation was and he didn’t say that in his exact words, but we understood the message that was pretty much how it is”.
Hilton had a career year of sorts despite missing a quarter of the 2020 season. He posted three interceptions and recovered two fumbles, giving him five takeaways. He shared the team lead in takeaways, though, as safety Minkah Fitzpatrick also had five—four interceptions and one fumble recovery.
It’s hard to know what Hilton actually said, let alone what he actually feels, hearing it secondhand through Boyd, but it’s not uncommon for players to talk against their former team when it comes time to play against them, especially if it’s a divisional rival.
The question is, though, would Hilton be right to feel unvalued, insulted, disrespected? Contract talks never went the way that he wanted them to, but realistically, in those moments, would they have gone any differently on another team?
The Steelers could have, theoretically, re-signed Hilton this offseason, who joined the Bengals on a four-year, $24 million deal. But the length of the contract that he signed alone would have made it difficult, as Pittsburgh was in such a bind with the cap space that they were adding void years to one-year deals.
They did opt to re-sign Cameron Sutton on a two-year, $9 million contract, which included three void years. He may feel insulted that they re-signed his backup rather than him. But Sutton was the cheaper and more versatile option at the same time that they also released Steven Nelson, a starting outside cornerback.
Hilton entered the previous two offseasons hoping to talk contract with the Steelers. Even as a third-year exclusive rights free agent in 2019, having seen the Steelers work out a new deal with Alejandro Villanueva in similar circumstances, he wanted to be rewarded.
But doing deals with exclusive rights free agents is incredibly rare, and the left tackle position is significantly more important than the nickel cornerback. He played the 2020 season under a second-round restricted free agent tender; it’s not clear if the Steelers ever attempted to talk contract extension with him then, or earlier this offseason, but my guess is the latter.