Mike Hilton was a revelation in 2017, a player who had been released by both the Jaguars and Patriots as a rookie but found success with the Steelers as the team's nickel corner in just his second season in the NFL.
But the Steelers felt Hilton took a step backward in 2018, as injuries and his overall lack of size made him a frequently targeted player in the team's defense.
It led to Cameron Sutton getting more snaps in the slot late last season, a trend that will continue when the Steelers open their OTA sessions in two weeks as they begin to ramp up for the 2019 season.
Had the Steelers failed in their attempt to move up in the first round of last week's draft, it's likely they would have selected a corner or safety capable of also playing in the slot. As things worked out, however, they did move up from the 20th to the 10th pick, a jump that cost them their second-round pick this year and their third next year.
Instead of a defensive back in the first round, they selected linebacker Devin Bush. Then, they grabbed receiver Diontae Johnson with their first of two third-round picks, taking corner Justin Layne with the second.
But the 6-foot-2 Layne isn't a player who is going to challenge Hilton in the slot. He's strictly an outside corner.
After allowing 38 receptions for 468 yards and two touchdowns with two interceptions in 2017, Hilton gave up 51 catches for 601 yards and five scores and one interception in 2018, per playerprofiler.com. And at 5 feet 9, 183 pounds, Hilton, though a willing tackler, can be a liability against the run. He's still an outstanding blitzer, but the Steelers feel his lack of foot speed leaves him in a trail position far too often in coverage.
That's where they feel Sutton could make a difference. At 5-foot-11, 188 pounds, Sutton offers a little more size for the position. Over the final few games of last season, the team began rotating he and Hilton in the slot.
The Steelers had been using Sutton as their jack-of-all-trades before that, putting him all over the secondary in OTAs and even into training camp, including using him as a dime linebacker.
But the plan this year is to allow Sutton to fully compete with Hilton for the starting slot corner spot.
• The Steelers have informed the agent for cornerback Artie Burns they will not be picking up his fifth-year option for the 2020 season. That's a surprise to no one, considering Burns has fallen out of favor with the team. The 2017 first-round draft pick just hasn't fit into what the Steelers do on defense. And paying him $9.9 million just wasn't going to happen. That doesn't mean Burns can't make the team this year, however, and save his career. But the selection of Justin Layne in the third round of the draft and the addition of Steven Nelson in free agency doesn't help. As Mike Tomlin said at the NFL Meetings in March, the Steelers aren't counting on Burns any longer. That part of this is over. If he's going to make this roster, it will only be because he's one of their top five or six corners. Otherwise, look for Burns to be traded. He could still have some value to a team that plays a lot of man coverage. -- Lolley
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