The Steelers are less than a week away from entering the free-agency phase of the offseason, and this much is already clear: They won’t be able to afford a lot.
If you’re looking for a word that rhymes with lot (and you probably aren’t), slot would be a good one. Slot in football terms often refers to the third receiver or cornerback on the field at any particular time.
In terms of cornerbacks, Mike Hilton is one of the best slot corners in the NFL. The undrafted free agent out of Ole Miss dazzled the Steelers so much during the 2017 training camp that he not only made the final roster, he was named their starting slot corner.
Hilton did not disappoint, and he really hasn’t disappointed since.
However, despite quickly emerging as one of the best slot corners in the business, Hilton had very little contract leverage over the first four years of his career—including a season ago when he was a restricted free agent.
That all changes on Wednesday when Hilton becomes an unrestricted free agent, free to offer his services to the highest bidder. The Steelers can still work out a deal with him prior to Wednesday, but that’s likely not going to happen considering how valuable Hilton figures to be on the open market and how limited Pittsburgh’s financial situation is.
An alternative would be Cameron Sutton, a third-round pick out of Tennessee, who seems to be the clear-cut favorite to replace Hilton but at a much more team-friendly deal. But what if things aren’t as clear-cut as they seem with Sutton? Let’s face it, teams overspend in free agency all the time. I don’t think that’s much of a secret. Also, timing usually plays a huge part in the kind of deal a player can negotiate for himself once he becomes unrestricted. Sutton didn’t have a Pro Bowl season in 2020, but he did have the best one of his career.
Furthermore, he provides position flexibility and, in addition to playing the slot, Sutton can also play on the outside and at safety.
Don’t be surprised if Sutton cashes in with a better deal than anyone could have ever imagined.
That brings me to Sean Davis, yes, him. Is it so crazy to think that he could be a cheap but mostly effective alternative to overspending for Hilton or Sutton?
Davis came into the NFL in 2016 with the ability to play corner and safety, and while his more effective position appeared to be safety, he did begin his rookie season as the Steelers’ starting slot corner. Davis eventually moved over to strong safety before finding a true home as a free safety. Unfortunately for Davis, he got injured early in the 2019 season and Pittsburgh decided to trade for an All-Pro at the free-safety position: Minkah Fitzpatrick.
With the handwriting clearly on the wall, Davis signed a free-agent deal with Washington last spring. Sadly, that deal didn’t stick. Davis was released last summer and was back with the Steelers for the 2020 campaign.
So what happened with Davis in Washington? Who knows, but you can ask the same thing about B.J. Finney in Seattle. Years ago, you could have asked that question about Larry Foote’s one season in Detroit or Willie Gay’s brief stint with the Cardinals.
Sometimes, a player excels with a particular organization but not another. Both Foote and Gay came back to Pittsburgh after leaving as free agents and continued to be productive players.
Were they superstars? No, but the Steelers didn’t need them to be. As for Davis, Pittsburgh doesn’t need him to be one of the better slot corners in the NFL. Considering the Steelers salary cap troubles, I think they’d be happy if he was just reliable.
And it doesn’t have to be for the next half-decade either, just long enough to get the Steelers through 2021 without compromising what still promises to be a dynamic and dominant defense.
After that, the Steelers’ cap situation figures to get a lot better, and they can then go about filling the slot corner position with someone with more potential. For all we know, they might find that player somewhere in the 2021 NFL Draft, and he can use his rookie season to hone his skills and prepare to be a future starter.
Oh yes, Davis also provides position flexibility and has a combined 42 career starts at both the free and strong safety positions.
Call me crazy, but if they don’t work things out with Mike Hilton (and the odds are long that they will), and if they can’t strike a team-friendly deal with Cam Sutton (and it wouldn’t be a total shock if someone overpaid for him), I think Sean Davis can be a cheap and effective alternative for them in 2021.