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Missing Pieces: Two Defensive Gems the Steelers Couldn’t Afford

Defensive line depth and a versatile cornerback who can play in the slot are two areas that the Pittsburgh Steelers currently need in 2024. The organization once had these positions filled, but as with any team, players age, retire, or move on in free agency.

There are two defensive athletes in recent memory who made a direct impact during their time in the Steel City but left in free agency for a larger paycheck – Javon Hargrave and Mike Hilton.

As we know with many former Steelers, the grass is not always greener on the other side. There are a handful of players who wish they would have stayed in Pittsburgh but at that specific moment, they believed that a larger salary and a change of scenery would be the best situation in their career.

With Hargrave and Hilton, both defensive gems tested free agency and their success on their new teams have been quite successful from both a salary perspective and performance on the field.

Hargrave signed a three-year $39 million contract with the Philadelphia Eagles on March 21, 2020. He spent three seasons with the team and maintained a rather healthy experience, only missing a handful of games in his first season (2020).

As for a production standpoint, Hargrave produced more sacks during his three seasons with the Eagles than his four seasons in Pittsburgh. Including playoffs, he registered 25 sacks, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries.

Statistics do not always paint the big picture in football. While Hargrave had better stats in Philadelphia than Pittsburgh, he was still very much an impactful defensive player. I just wanted to mention that as it is very important to note that Hargrave’s production with the Steelers warranted a contract extension, had the organization been able to afford at the time.

After completing a successful three season stint with the Eagles, on March 16, 2023, three years after his first big free agency contract extension worth up to $39 million, Hargrave signed a new four-year contract worth a whopping $84 million with the San Francisco 49ers.

During the 2023 season, the production only increased with Hargrave being a direct impact on the 49ers’ stellar defense. He finished with seven sacks and two pass deflections. During the Super Bowl, he registered one sack, one fumble recovery and had six tackles, en route to losing in overtime to the defending Super Bowl Champion Kansas City Chiefs.

As one can see, Hargrave’s success from a financial and production standpoint only increased after he left the Steelers. The organization could not afford to pay him along with their other super star in T.J. Watt, and that is okay. Do we all wish that we had Hargrave still in the Black and Gold? I would say the majority would answer yes to that question.

If you enjoy feel good stories, than you may remember Mike Hilton and how he became a starting-caliber NFL cornerback after going undrafted from Ole Miss in 2016.

Hilton joined the Steelers’ practice squad in December 2016 and did not play during that season. He entered 2017 in a competition role with William Gay and former second round draft pick Senquez Golson, who would later get injured once again, ending his career before it even began.

After impressing in training camp, Hilton was named the starting nickelback corner to begin 2017 and the rest was history. During his five season career in Pittsburgh, Hilton registered 9.5 total sacks, seven interceptions, two forced fumbles, five fumble recoveries and over 230 combined tackles. He was the Swiss Army Knife on the defense who could be place anywhere and would make his presence known early and often.

Following the 2020 season, similar to Hargrave, Hilton left to join the Cincinnati Bengals where he would sign a four-year $24 million contract. He had a direct impact on the team making the Super Bowl in 2021; and in the playoffs, he would register an interception along with four pass deflections.

Hargrave and Hilton produced early in their career and received a larger paycheck as a reward. The Steelers could not afford both of these athletes during the same offseason, and they both have forged a solid NFL career elsewhere.

Like many fans, I sometimes think what it would be like to still have Hargrave and Hilton on this defense. While that is a dream, I am glad that both of these athletes are impacting their franchises and continuing to make plays.

Let me know what your thoughts are on Hargrave and Hilton during their Steelers time and if you, like myself, are both happy that they’re doing well but also wish they were still Pittsburgh Steelers.


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