Steelers made a mistake letting Mike Hilton walk during 2021 offseason

Cincinnati Bengals cornerback Mike Hilton (21). Mandatory Credit: Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports
Cincinnati Bengals cornerback Mike Hilton (21). Mandatory Credit: Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports /

Mike Hilton was a crucial part of the Cincinnati Bengals defense this year. Here’s why the Pittsburgh Steelers made a poor decision letting him walk in 2021.

I know hindsight is always twenty-twenty, but I don’t think there’s a Steelers fan out there who is going to tell you that Pittsburgh didn’t make a mistake by allowing cornerback Mike Hilton to walk away from the team during the 2021 offseason.

At the time, Kevin Colbert was trying to work his salary cap magic, as the Steelers had virtually no spending money. In fact, in order to clear up cap space, Pittsburgh had to restructure a handful of contracts and tack on voidable years in order to get the roster they had last season.

However, I would argue that they stuck with some players who should have been cut. Zach Banner was a colossal waste of money this year, and the team eventually was able to trade for Joe Schobert — absorbing his massive cap hit.

While the Steelers elected to go with Cameron Sutton in the 2021 offseason (who was also coming off a strong season), Mike Hilton earned a very attainable 4-year, $24 million contract with the Bengals this offseason, and his cap number in his first two seasons is just $5 million, according to Over the Cap.

Why Steelers should have kept Hilton

Hilton was exceptional as a run defender and blitzer for the Steelers and he occasionally made the big play in coverage. The collection of his skill set made him one of the better slot cornerbacks in the NFL over the past three seasons. However, Pittsburgh clearly didn’t see it this way, and they thought they would easily be able to replace his role.

In his first season with the Bengals in 2021, Hilton was arguably even better than he was in Pittsburgh. According to Pro Football Focus, Hilton churned out the 19th-highest grade among 120 qualifying cornerbacks. He did this while playing more snaps for Cincinnati than he ever did in any season for the Steelers (803 defensive snaps).

During the 2021 season, Hilton earned 66 tackles, 2 interceptions, 5 pass defenses, and 8 tackles for a loss, via Pro Football Reference, while being a staple to Cincinnati’s new and improved defense.

Being able to retain Mike Hilton obviously wouldn’t have solved all of Pittsburgh’s problems this past season, but he would have given them one more quality piece to build around. In recent years, the Steelers have lost players like Hilton, Javon Hargrave, Bud Dupree, and Matt Feiler in free agency with no competent option to take their place.

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Pittsburgh will survive without Mike Hilton, but it stings a little watching him perform well for a division rival at a very affordable price. The Steelers need to prioritize their money correctly in 2022 in order to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past.