Heading into the 2020 season, the Steelers can finally say with confidence their secondary is a strength of the team. A big reason why is the development of guys like Mike Hilton and Cam Sutton. Hilton is a former undrafted free agent who was signed to the practice squad at the end of 2016 before ultimately making the team as a starter in 2017. Sutton has more pedigree of the two as he was drafted in the third round out of Tennessee in 2017. The Steelers brought back Hilton as a restricted free agent on a second-round tender making both Hilton and Sutton free agents at the end of the 2020 season. Pittsburgh is likely going to have to make a tough decision on which one to keep as they both are solid contributors to what should be one of if not the top defense in the NFL.
According to overthecap.com the top slot cornerbacks average salary per year is around $8-9 million. If both Hilton and Sutton have solid seasons again in 2020, one would expect them to command contracts in that ballpark. It has been reported the NFL salary cap is going to increase dramatically next season with the new CBA in place, but with the uncertainty surrounding Covid-19 and how it will affect the 2020 season, one cannot assume it will be the case. Pittsburgh has some tough decisions to make financially coming up and Omar Khan will have to work his cap magic once again. The Steelers surely won’t let both walk after the season and I am glad I don’t have to make the decision.
Mike Hilton has become one of the best slot defenders in the NFL since he became a starter in 2017. According to Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, as well as some other local media, there were some in the organization who were skeptical on bringing Hilton back in 2020 due to his size when matching up with some of the bigger slot receivers. While this may be factual, Hilton is constantly around the ball and making plays. He is a physical, great blitzer, and more than adequate in coverage for a slot corner. He is the smallest guy on the field most of the time, but with how physical he plays you would never know. Hilton can also play safety in a pinch if need be.
Sutton’s career started off a little slow and it really wasn’t a reflection of poor play on his part. He was blocked by former first round pick Artie Burns who is now a member of the Chicago Bears and the Steelers snagged Joe Haden right before the start of 2017. Sutton is a jack-of-all-trades as he can play both inside and outside while also playing safety. The 2019 season was a huge year for Sutton as he saw a significant number of snaps in both nickel and dime for the defense. If you go back and watch the matchup with Chargers in particular, especially late in the game, you can see how far Sutton has come since he was a rookie. The Steelers were already down Steven Nelson for the game and Haden left with an injury forcing Sutton to play more than his usual sub package snaps. As a result, he was constantly in the Chargers receivers pockets.
If it were up to me, I would bring back Hilton over Sutton even though you can’t go wrong with either. I understand the concern over his height and lack of size, but the guy is just a solid football player. However, I believe if forced to chose the Steelers will bring back Sutton. It’s his ability to play inside and out as well as some safety is what I think will be the deciding factor. Sutton could potentially be a replacement for Joe Haden depending on how second year pro Justin Layne develops. What we do know for sure is both will be key cogs in 2020 for what should be one of the top defensive units in the NFL. Unfortunately, one of them will most likely be gone after the season, but not until they give the Steelers a chance to bring home a seventh Lombardi Trophy.