Over the past few seasons, the Steelers have made serious investments in an attempt to improve their secondary. Through the draft, they have selected CB Senquez Golson (2015, 2nd round), CB Doran Grant (2015, 4th round), S Gerod Holliman (2015, 7th round), CB Artie Burns (2016, 1st round), S Sean Davis (2016, 2nd round), CB Cam Sutton (2017, 3rd round), and CB Brian Allen (2017, 5th round). In addition to adding these players via the draft, the Steelers also managed to snag CB Ross Cockrell at the beginning of the 2015 season and signed CB Coty Sensabaugh during this offseason. While the results and success to this point of these players has been mixed, there is no denying the Steelers’ awareness of changes that needed to occur to become better equipped to compete in today’s pass-happy NFL.
As the regular season approaches, it is pretty clear that the Steelers will utilize Burns and Cockrell on the outside this season, barring an unexpected occurrence. The biggest question, however, is who will man the nickel/slot corner duties. As it currently stands, William Gay has been holding down those responsibilities, but as he enters the twilight of his career, his starting position is anything but guaranteed.
And surprisingly enough, it might not be one of the aforementioned players that takes his spot.
Enter Mike Hilton.
“Who is that?”
As an unknown (even to some of his teammates), Hilton went undrafted out of Ole Miss in 2016 after being a 2015 2nd-Team All-SEC selection and signed with the Jaguars before ultimately ending up on the Patriots practice squad for one week. By the end of the season, Hilton had been picked up by the Steelers and stashed away on the practice squad before signing a Reserve/Future contract at the beginning of this offseason.
A teammate of Golson in 2013 and 2014 at Ole Miss, Hilton resembles the Steelers’ 2015 2nd-round pick in many ways. Coming in at 5’9″, 184 lbs., Hilton possesses the same below-average height that knocked Golson coming into the league. But on tape, Hilton often plays much bigger than his stature would indicate.
The biggest thing that stands out with Hilton’s game is his fiery tackling style. Small defenders often have the stigma of being “ankle biters” when looking to make a hit. What makes Hilton special here, however, is his ability to use a strong, square base to wrap up or chop down players and attempt to run through them on contact. This allows him to effectively bring opposing ball carriers to the ground, even if they are bigger than him. As a nickel corner, this is particularly crucial, as these players are called upon to help on the line of scrimmage in run support.
In coverage, Mike Hilton did not put up the same gaudy interception numbers Golson did (Hilton only had 6 career interceptions at Ole Miss) but that does not mean that he lacks the ideal ball skills to succeed in the NFL. During his last two seasons in college, Hilton totaled 25 passes defended, displaying the ability to consistently high point passes to compensate for his lack of height. Much of this is due to his ability to track the ball while it is in the air, even when he is not facing the quarterback.
If Mike Hilton has all of these traits, then why did he go undrafted last season? Much of that likely has to do with the fact that he is an average athlete, clocking only a 4.55 second 40 and only a 33.5″ vertical (Golson had identical vertical measurements but ran a 4.46 second 40 at the 2015 NFL Combine). His average (although not terrible) numbers paired with his size make for a prime candidate to fall or go unselected on draft day. Hilton’s football IQ, confidence, and physicality make up for these athletic shortcomings and make for a player that has to truly work for the opportunities thrown his way.
So far with the Steelers, Mike Hilton has received reps with the 1’s in the slot in relief of Gay and the rest of his primary reps have been with the 2’s. When the Steelers selected Sutton in this year’s draft, it appeared that he would have the inside track to be the primary competition to Gay along with Golson. There is still plenty of time for this to happen as camp is still very young and there has been no in-game action. But currently, these notions have been put to the wayside and Hilton has been the guy.
Before being injured during practice (again), Golson was getting most of his reps on the outside, freeing up more opportunities for Hilton to prove his worth. So far, his play has not gone unnoticed, as some high-profile Steelers have made note of what he has been doing. Recently, as reported by Jim Wexell of Steel City Insider, Ryan Shazier had high praise for the young corner:
“Mike’s been doing a really good job. He’s really grasping the concept of what we’re trying to do, and when we put him in he really does a great job of it. He shows that he can make plays. He has good footwork. He was with us last year for a little while so he understands what we’re trying to do. I think he’s ready to go.”
The praise didn’t stop with just Shazier, as Ramon Foster also chimed in during an interview with Mike Prisuta on the Steelers’ official website:
“Also, (first-year cornerback) Mike (Hilton), No. 40, the DB, I had to ask Kevin Colbert about him, who is this guy? He’s comfortable going with the No. 1s. He’s a guy that’s always making a play. He’s shifty, he doesn’t look rattled.”
Even with praise such as this, Mike Hilton still has a long way to go to prove that he is worth securing a spot on the Steelers’ 53-man roster. Players have a tendency to appear much better than they actually are during the early stages of training camp. But at the same time, the Steelers also have a track record of unearthing undrafted talent which ultimately ends up making an impact on the field. Recent examples of this are Eli Rogers, Jordan Dangerfield, Chris Hubbard, B.J. Finney, Roosevelt Nix, and Robert Golden. While not all of these players started their careers with the Steelers, they all took the same undrafted route to the league and have each played a role on the roster over the past few seasons.
What’s to say that Mike Hilton can’t be next?