While it would be fair to say that the Pittsburgh Steelers 2019 roster looks to be set at several positions, there are still a handful of starting roles yet to be decided and a number of backup up jobs remain up for grabs.
Over the coming weeks, BTSC editor Jeff Hartman and myself will take a look at some of the more obvious key names that will be fighting position battles throughout minicamp, OTAs and training camp later in the year, each taking a different side in the fight and providing our thoughts on why our pick will be the winner.
So far we have weighed in on the impending battles between quarterbacks Joshua Dobbs and Mason Rudolph, runnings backs Jaylen Samuel and Benny Snell Jr. wide receivers James Washington and Donte Moncrief, tackles Matt Feiler and Chukwuma Okorafor and linebackers Devin Bush and Mark Barron. Today we move onto the cornerbacks.
Mike Hilton vs. Cameron Sutton
While Mike Hilton may have arrived in Pittsburgh a year earlier than Cameron Sutton, his debut season with the Steelers was a brief one in 2016, signed to the practice squad a few weeks before the end of the season after being released by the New England Patriots. Both players took part in their first training camp in 2017, but it was Hilton who emerged in the far stronger position.
The former Ole Miss product claimed the starting role as the nickel corner and Sutton began the year on injured reserve after suffering a hamstring injury in the final preseason game, returning for the final few games of the season in Week 13. Hilton kept the job heading into 2018, with Sutton limited to a backup role and playing on special teams.
Despite being an active part of the defensive game plan at the start of the season, the only snaps Sutton saw after Week 8 were three plays at the end of the Steelers blowout win over the Carolina Panthers. Through the first seven games of 2018, Sutton saw more than 40 percent of the available snaps on defense each week, but was limited to just special teams duties once the team returned from their bye.
As the secondary faltered, Sutton found himself back in the mix at practice, seeing snaps over Hilton in training. However, he was still limited to just 30 snaps on defense in the final three games of the season.
This is an intriguing camp battle considering Hilton’s game time was scaled back at the end of last year. Hilton’s 2018 just wasn’t as good as his 2017 season, and many suspect it is because the league has been able to catch up with him, how the Steelers use him, and his weaknesses.
However, for a guy who has literally fought for every inch he has earned with the Steelers, I feel a bounce back season is going to happen. Hilton is a smart player with tremendous blitzing skills, and he will benefit from having a better supporting cast around him in 2019. Terrell Edmunds will have a year under his belt, Joe Haden and Sean Davis return and Steven Nelson should help iron out any kinks on that side of the defense.
With that said, I do see them using Sutton more this year, but I still think Hilton wins the battle entering Week 1. Will he keep it? That depends. In my opinion, a huge indicator for how the Steelers feel about Hilton will come this offseason. Hilton is currently without a contract since he hasn’t signed his tender. He wants a new deal, but do the Steelers give him that contract? Or just wait and see how this season goes? If they give him the deal you have your answer, but if they don’t give him that brand new contract this job is up for grabs.
If Sutton is ever to repay the faith the Steelers had in him when they selected him in the third-round of the 2017 NFL Draft, now would be the time to do it. With free agent signing Steven Nelson and Joe Haden seemingly locks for the two starting roles on the outside and the latest third-round draft pick in Justin Layne all but guaranteed to be part of the final 53-man roster, Sutton is far from certain to make the team this year.
But if he has hopes of breaking into the first team in 2019, perhaps his best opportunity will come at nickel corner. Hilton suffered a notable drop off in play from 2017 to 2018, a fact highlighted by grades of 83.1 and 69.9 in the respective seasons by Pro Football Focus and confirmed by anyone with eyes who watched the decline of the secondary last season. That being said, he was limited by an elbow injury suffered in Week 3 for much of the year and was hardly helped by the play of some of those around him.
While Sutton has had his moments in certain matchups, his struggles in games against the Kansas City Chiefs and Baltimore Ravens in the first half of the 2018 season were clear for all to see when given extended playing time. Having played multiple positions for the Steelers last year, his versatility alone will likely keep him in the Black and Gold for one more season, but his chances of taking the starting role might rely more on Hilton declining than his own improvement.
Praised for his man-coverage skills coming out of college and commended for his instincts, the coaching staff needs to see more of the skills he showed as cornerback at Tennessee if he is to be a starter. The criticisms back then centered around his passive nature in press coverage and his inability to locate the ball once it is in the air, a skill he appears to yet lack. Improving his tackling would not hurt either, another issue the scouting reports highlighted back in 2016.
Who wins this camp battle?
This poll is closed