The Pittsburgh Steelers lost three starters from their outstanding defense during the off season; Bud Dupree, Mike Hilton, and Steven Nelson. Dupree leaving via free agency was to be expected, so much so that the Steelers drafted his eventually replacement by selecting Alex Highsmith in the third round of the 2020 NFL Draft. Nelson's departure was rather unexpected, happening seemingly out of nowhere after contract restructuring discussions reached an impasse and salary cap saving measures were taken.
Mike Hilton's odds of returning were no better than 50/50, a proverbial flip of the coin. On one hand, Hilton was the prototypical Pittsburgh Steelers player. He was the undersized, overachiever who's junkyard dog mentality more closely resembled a diminutive linebacker than a slot corner. He helped set a tone for the defense and his intensity was no doubt inspirational for his teammates. He had two obstacles standing in the way of him finally signing a long term contract with the Steelers; the Steelers severely limited cap space and the fact that teammate Cameron Sutton, his main competition for the slot position, was also a unrestricted free agent. The Steelers signed Sutton, presumably because of his superior pass coverage and versatility. Hilton finally got the multiyear deal and financial security that had eluded him for so long, only it was with the Cincinnati Bengals.
That left the Steelers without technically two starting cornerbacks prior to the 2021 NFL Draft. Sutton has experience with the Steelers defense, both in the slot and on the outside, but where will he prove more valuable and his services be needed the most? The Steelers have a couple of talented but inexperienced young corners who are strictly outside corners in Justin Layne and James Pierre. They seemed destined to compete to be the first corner off the bench, especially if Sutton slides inside when needed. While I personally feel that Pierre is more than capable of filling that role if and when the Steelers deem it necessary, he will have to prove himself on the playing field.
The good news is the Steelers actually have multiple options they may be able to utilize at the slot corner position. They could consider a committee approach, depending on the matchups and opposition personnel. The Steelers brought in multiple undrafted free agents after the draft trying to find another diamond in the rough, similar to how they discovered the aforementioned Mike Hilton back in the day.
However, in a perfect world, the Steelers would prefer to rely on a more proven commodity at the slot position. Somebody who actually has some NFL experience, preferably within the Steelers defensive system. Based on those parameters, I will focus on the potential contributions from Cameron Sutton, Antoine Brooks Jr., and Arthur Maulet. Each player brings their own unique skill set to the equation, and could maximize their contributions if utilized correctly by the coaches.
Sutton has improved every year he has been in the league. Always a strong coverage corner, he has gained functional playing strength and has become a reliable tackler. He showed a knack for forcing fumbles last season, and he has always shown exceptional ball skills. Anytime the Steelers face an opponent with strong receiving options out of the slot, I would fully expect the Steelers to counter with Sutton.
There has been some reports recently suggesting that the slot position is Antoine Brooks job to lose. I can neither confirm nor deny those rumors, but the logic seems to have merit. The Steelers realized that there was a real possibility that they would be unable to retain Hilton in free agency, and they valued his contributions as a type of slot linebacker. If Hilton was a bigger individual, he would be considered a hybrid, a tweener if you will. Brooks is a strong safety by definition, with the aggressive downhill mindset of a linebacker. Another player who plays bigger than his size; he is an excellent, high volume form tackler. He will be most effective against the more physical, run oriented opponents like the Baltimore Ravens and Chicago Bears.
That brings us to former New York Jet Arthur Maulet. Another former undrafted free agent like the aforementioned Mike Hilton, Maulet is with the fourth NFL franchise of his career since signing with the Steelers. In typical UDFA fashion, he has carved out a professional career by being ready, willing, and able. He has excelled on special teams from day one, and has displayed the position versatility often coveted in defensive depth. His shorter stature and less than ideal long speed limits him primarily to the slot, where his short area quickness and physicality can truly shine. Quick observation for anyone who hasn't seen any of Maulet's Twitter posts since signing with the Steelers. He is jacked up. He looks like a MMA fighter at weigh ins. Reminds me of a smaller version of Steelers legend Greg Lloyd.
When you throw much ballyhooed UDFA Shakur Brown and extremely versatile Tre Norwood into the discussion of possible chess pieces at the Steelers disposal, there appears to be plenty of talented candidates that the Steelers can mix and match depending on the matchups, as they see fit.
The collective group of candidates will battle it out during training camp and the preseason games, trying to establish a pecking order. Let the chips fall where they may.