Should the Steelers re-sign cornerback Mike Hilton?

Mike Hilton turned out to be an excellent free-agent pickup by the Steelers in 2017. Can Pittsburgh afford to give him an extension?

One of the most fascinating improvements on the Pittsburgh Steelers in recent years has come in the back end of their defense. After decades of suffering through sub-par cornerback play, Pittsburgh finally appeared to possess one of the deepest defensive back groups they have had in ages.

Much of the credit for this belongs to Kevin Colbert and his proactive approach to improve the team. Traditionally, Colbert is a GM who likes to build his team through the draft and invest in the players who began their careers in Pittsburgh. In recent years, however, Colbert has taken a new approach.

The Steelers have made a few big free agent signings as of late with Joe Haden in 2017 and Steven Nelson in 2019. Colbert was even so bold as to trade away Pittsburgh’s first-round pick in 2020 for Minkah Fitzpatrick – a player the Steelers believed could help their franchise right away.

All of the aforementioned moves seemed to have taken Pittsburgh’s defense to new heights. However, with all of their recent investments to bolster their secondary, can the Steelers afford to pay Mike Hilton?

Hilton is a restricted free agent heading into 2020, so the Steelers can put a high tender on him in an attempt to retain his services next season. However, after making just $645,000 this season despite being one the league’s best slot cornerbacks, there’s no doubt Hilton is looking for a big payday.

The Steelers are 3rd worst in the NFL when it comes to available cap space in 2020, and with a free agent list that includes players like Bud Dupree and Javon Hargrave, Hilton may not be first on Pittsburgh’s list of priorities this offseason.

Still, Hilton has been an excellent player for the Steelers, and keeping this secondary together could be the key to a successful defense yet again in 2020. There are ways that the Steelers can find cap room.

I recently wrote about four players who could be cap casualties for Pittsburgh this year. This list is headlined by players like Anthony Chickillo and Mark Barron. Cutting these two players alone would free up over $10 million in cap space in 2020.

Obviously, the Steelers will need to set aside money to sign their rookie draft class, and Mike Tomlin said that Bud Dupree’s contract is a “priority” this offseason. It’s hard to say whether Hilton and the Steelers will be able to come to terms on a new deal with Pittsburgh’s limited budget.

If worse comes to worst, Pittsburgh has Cameron Sutton waiting in the wings. He was excellent when called upon this season as he allowed just a 51.2 passer rating to opposing quarterbacks. Sutton would likely step into the nickel cornerback role after Hilton is gone.

It’s likely the Steelers will be able to retain Hilton because of the restricted free agent tag he holds this year, but his future beyond 2020 is uncertain. Still just 25 years old, Hilton seems like the gritty, physical competitor that Pittsburgh would like to keep around for along time.