(On the Purple Daily podcast this week, I gave Phil Mackey three Vikings players that I expect to take a step forward in 2020. The first was wide receiver Olabisi Johnson. The second is cornerback Mike Hughes.)
The Vikings surprised many in 2018 when they selected Mike Hughes with their first-round pick. The cornerback from Central Florida was taken 30th overall ahead of two guys — Will Hernandez (34th to the Giants) and Braden Smith (37th to the Colts) — who played a position (guard) of definite need for Minnesota.
The immediate reaction was to point the finger at Mike Zimmer. The Vikings coach is a defensive guy first and if he has a soft spot for one position on that side of the ball it’s cornerback. What made the Hughes selection puzzling was Minnesota appeared set with veterans Xavier Rhodes and Trae Waynes as its starting outside corners and 2016 second-round pick Mackensie Alexander developing in the nickel role.
So what were Zimmer and general manager Rick Spielman thinking when they took Hughes? Apparently, they were doing some serious long-term planning.
Two years later, the Vikings’ stability at the cornerback position is gone and if the addition of Hughes appeared to be a luxury on the day he was taken, that is no longer the case. Hughes’ emergence into a top-level corner is now a must for 2020, and so is his ability to remain on the field. Hughes has shown some positive flashes in his first two seasons, but the concerning thing is he has only played in 20 of a possible 32 regular-season games because of injury.
Zimmer, a stickler for details from his cornerbacks, showed faith in Hughes during his initial season by giving him two starts in the six games in which he played. Hughes became the first Vikings rookie to have a pick-six in his NFL debut when he intercepted Jimmy Garoppolo in a 24-16 victory over the 49ers in Week 1.
But Hughes’ season came to an end in an October game against Arizona when he suffered a multi-ligament injury, that included a torn ACL, in his left knee. Hughes returned in the third game of last season and played in the final 14 games of the regular season before suffering a broken vertebrae in Week 17 against Chicago that landed him on injured reserve for the playoffs. Hughes had the second interception of his career against the Chargers in a December victory and ended up making three starts.
Rhodes’ decline in play also gave Hughes a chance to get more snaps as part of a cornerback rotation the Vikings started to use. Assuming he can stay healthy, there will be no rotation involving Hughes in 2020. He will be an every-down guy. Holton Hill, Kris Boyd, first-round pick Jeff Gladney and fellow 2020 picks Cameron Dantzler (third round) and Harrison Hand (fifth round) will be among those battling for spots. Remember, there are three starting jobs open since the nickel corner plays more than 50 percent of the snaps in today’s NFL.
In Part I of this series, I wrote about the possibility of 2019 seventh-round wide receiver Olabisi Johnson taking a step forward this season. While the Vikings would welcome that, the reality is that Adam Thielen is atop the depth chart at receiver and 2020 first-round pick Justin Jefferson also is being counted on. If Johnson doesn’t take another step, that should not impact the Vikings’ season.
When it comes to Hughes, it’s an absolute necessity that he turns into a reliable corner. Hill and Boyd know the defense, but Hill has had off-the-field issues and Boyd was mostly a special teams player in 2019, after being a seventh-round pick by Minnesota.
Hughes got some valuable experience last season after returning from his knee injury. Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott went after him numerous times last November in the Vikings’ prime-time victory at Dallas. Hughes gave up 11 catches in that game, but Zimmer had the luxury of picking and choosing when he was going to use the 5-10, 189-pound corner.
That luxury is a thing of the past. If the Vikings are going to rebound from their 15th place finish in the NFL last season in pass defense — a 12-spot drop from 2018 — it’s going to be in part because Hughes not only has continued to make progress but he’s also able to stay on the field. If Hughes can do those things, the Vikings will be in a position to have the last laugh on everyone who questioned their decision to take him in the opening round.