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Restricted Free Agent Mike Hilton makes for a tough decision for the Steelers

The Pittsburgh Steelers’ slot cornerback is a Restricted Free Agent in 2020, and creates a tough decision for the Steelers.

Buffalo Bills v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

I think it is safe to say Mike Hilton’s 2018 season left a lot to be desired. Hilton wanted a new contract, and didn’t miss a workout trying to prove his worth to the organization, but the reality of the situation was the organization wasn’t sure what they had in Hilton.

Was he more of the 2017 version which was a demon coming on the blitz, or the 2018 version who was vulnerable, and often picked on, in coverage?

The 2019 season saw Hilton take a step in the right direction. His play was more consistent, and he seemed to have covered up some of his failures in coverage which plagued him in 2018.

One area Hilton has never struggled with is blitzing, and the Steelers know what they are doing when it comes to disguising, and sending, Hilton on those famous slot corner blitzes. Check out this short video of Andy Benoit breaking down the Steelers’ scheme, as well as Hilton’s play.

Hilton does have many redeeming qualities in his game, but the decision the Steelers now face entering the 2020 offseason is not an easy one. As a Restricted Free Agent (RFA), the Steelers still have control over Hilton’s contract.

But being an Exclusive Rights Free Agent (ERFA) and a RFA are vastly different. As a RFA the Steelers could either choose to match any offer another team gave Hilton— the right of first refusal— or they can place a tender on him. This is something the team did with B.J. Finney in 2019, placing a second-round tender on him as a RFA. This meant Finney got paid more after being tendered, and if another NFL franchise wanted his services, and the Steelers didn’t want to match the deal, they would receive a second-round pick as compensation.

This is where Hilton finds himself in 2020, waiting to see the Steelers’ next move. Their options are as follows:

  • Take the right of first refusal route
  • Place a tender on Hilton
  • Give Hilton a new contract, keeping him in Pittsburgh for the foreseeable future

With their limited salary cap space, the team would have to figure out if a new contract would actually save them money in 2020 compared to placing a second, or first, round tender on Hilton. An original-round tender does not help the situation with Hilton because he was an undrafted free agent therefore the Steelers would not receive any compensation.

Thanks to, here is the projected breakdown for teams who use a tender on their RFAs:

First-round tenders are valued at $4.667 million.
Second-round tenders are $3.278 million.
Original-round tenders are $2.144 million.

By looking at those numbers, you have to wonder if the team could give Hilton a three-year contract, which would pay him more around the original tender in 2020, and back load more of his overall money in later years when it is assumed they will have more cap space. Throw in the fact teams are wary of this type of move with the current Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations between the NFL and NFLPA, and this isn’t easy.

No one is suggesting the Steelers don’t want to keep Hilton, but how they handle his tender, or new contract, is certainly worth watching. Not an easy decision, especially when some consider Cameron Sutton to be just as good as Hilton, even better in some situations.

If you were Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin, how would you handle the situation with Hilton as a RFA? Would you try to give him a new contract? Place a second round tender on him? Or just take the right of first refusal approach? They all have different implications on the team. Let us know what you think in the comment section below, and be sure to stay tuned to BTSC for the latest news and notes surrounding the black-and-gold as they press on throughout the offseason.