In today’s pass-happy NFL having two quality starting cornerbacks isn’t enough.
“Defending the pass is now a matchup game between three-wide receiver sets and a trio of cornerbacks,” writes Solomon Wilcots, introducing his article on the best cornerback trios ahead of the 2020 NFL season. “So it should come as no surprise that last season, the average team lined up with three cornerbacks on the field on more than half of their total defensive plays,” Wilcots adds.
The good news is that the Pittsburgh Steelers now have a trio of quality cornerbacks to match up against NFL offenses. For the longest time, that wasn’t the case, as the Steelers have had trouble finding cornerbacks in the draft, with 2016 first-round draft pick Artie Burns—now with the Chicago Bears—the most notable miss.
But after two expensive purchases in free agency—and a relatively unlikely success story in undrafted free agent Mike Hilton—the Steelers have one of the best cornerback groups in the NFL. How good?
Joe Haden, Steven Nelson and Mike Hilton No. 5 in the NFL
Per the analysis of Wilcots—who played six seasons in the NFL as a safety for the Cincinnati Bengals, Minnesota Vikings and Steelers—Pittsburgh has the fifth-best trio of cornerbacks in the NFL in Joe Haden, Steven Nelson and the aforementioned Hilton.
Most notably, all three cornerbacks are on Pro Football Focus’ list of the 25 best cornerbacks of the 2019 regular season, finishing 25th, 7th and 18th in the NFL, respectively.
“Nelson remains the Steelers’ highest-graded corner in single man coverage, where his patience at the line of scrimmage prevent[s] wide receivers from gaining a free release when looking to gain easy access downfield,” Wilcots advises.
“On the inside, Mike Hilton has settled in as the Steelers’ top slot defender, and he allowed only 19 first-down receptions on 314 slot coverage snaps last season. He has an excellent feel for the position where he matches up perfectly to immediate combination routes,” Wilcots adds.
Looking Ahead to 2021 and Beyond
In other good news, both Joe Haden and Steven Nelson are signed through the 2021 season, though at considerable expense, as they were both well-established players in Cleveland and Kansas City before coming to Pittsburgh.
According to OvertheCap.com’s Pittsburgh Steelers page, Haden is scheduled to count $9,625,000 against the cap this year and $15,575,000 next year. Meanwhile, Nelson’s cap number for this season is $7,080,000 and $14,420,000 in 2021.
Those high numbers could make it tricky to retain Hilton, who recently signed his one-year tender as a restricted free agent. Hilton will earn $3,259,000 this season and will become an unrestricted free agent next spring.
If Hilton does leave in free agency, slot corner might suddenly become an urgent need, because the team’s best young corner, Justin Layne—who Mike Tomlin believes has a very bright future—is best suited to play on the outside. Alternatively, fourth-year CB Cameron Sutton—a pending unrestricted free agent—could conceivably be re-signed at a reasonable cost after the 2020 season and step into the slot corner role.
Hilton first saw game action with the Steelers in 2017, though he originally signed with the Jacksonville Jaguars as an undrafted free agent in 2016.
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