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First-round pick’s continuing neck problems have become cause for concern for Vikings

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Minnesota Vikings cornerback Mike Hughes (21) looks on before the start of an NFL football game against the Green Bay Packers, Sunday, Sept. 13, 2020, in Minneapolis. The Packers defeated the Vikings 43-34. (AP Photo/David Berding)

The Vikings’ decision to select Mike Hughes with the 30th pick in the first round of the 2018 draft surprised many considering the team’s depth at cornerback, but general manager Rick Spielman and coach Mike Zimmer were thinking of the future. Xavier Rhodes was aging and Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander were nearing the end of their contracts. Plus, the defensive-minded Zimmer wasn’t about to pass up the opportunity to add to his collection of cornerbacks.

Unfortunately, Hughes’ promising rookie year came to an end six games in when he tore the ACL and other ligaments in his left knee. Hughes returned against the Raiders in Week 3 last year, and was in for a season-high 92 percent of the defensive snaps in a Week 10 victory at Dallas, contributing seven tackles and breaking up two passes. His only interception came in a December victory against the Chargers, but it was becoming clear that Hughes likely would end up playing an important role in 2020.

That expectation was altered late in the season. Hughes played 37 percent of the defensive snaps in the regular-season finale against the Bears as Rhodes and Waynes rested because the Vikings already had their playoff position secured. He turned up on the injury report after that game because of a neck issue, but participated in all of the Wednesday practice before the Vikings faced the New Orleans Saints in the playoffs. He was limited on Thursday and by Friday landed on injured reserve.

So what had gone wrong?

The Star Tribune reported in mid-January that Hughes had a broken vertebra in his neck. If you are a football player, that scares you. After the Vikings’ lost to the 49ers in the second round of the playoffs, Zimmer told reporters that he expected Hughes would be ready for the Vikings’ offseason program, adding “He should be good to go. I mean, it will heal.” The Vikings, of course, never got to conduct their offseason program because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Rhodes, Waynes and Alexander did leave, however, opening the door for Hughes to play a major role in the Vikings’ new-look secondary. Hughes, who had started three games in 2019, started the first two games this season. The offseason feeling had been that for the Vikings to have any chance of success in 2020, Hughes would have to play a major role among the inexperienced corners that included first-round pick Jeff Gladney, third-round pick Cameron Dantzler and 2018 undrafted free agent Holton Hill.

Hughes’ presence didn’t end up helping much in an embarrassing 43-34 loss to Green Bay to open the season and a 28-11 loss in Week 2 at Indianapolis. There were a few eyebrows raised when Hughes was back on the injury report after the Colts’ loss because of a neck issue and the concern grew when he missed the next two games. Hughes returned in a Week 5 loss at Seattle, playing 80 percent of the snaps, but departed again because of the neck problem after only 13 snaps the following Sunday during a loss to Atlanta.

The Vikings are loathe to provide any injury information on their players, so there are few details known about Hughes’ neck issue this time. I don’t think the Vikings ever have actually announced that Hughes had a broken vertebra. But if the injuries are all tied together, and common sense says that’s the case, this has to have the folks at TCO Performance Center very worried.

ESPN’s Courtney Cronin sent this tweet Wednesday night:

With the Vikings sitting at 1-5 entering Sunday’s game in Green Bay, there should be no urgency to rush any injured player back. But if Hughes does go on injured reserve, that would mean that each of his first three seasons ended on IR and he has played in only 24 of a potential 40 games. And given this is a neck injury, the question then becomes when will he be cleared to return in 2021 and will the Vikings know before they have to make a decision on whether to pick up his fifth-year option in May?

All of this, of course, isn’t nearly as important as Hughes’ future off the field. He’s only 23 years old and a neck injury, unlike a knee, isn’t something you rehab and return from as soon as possible. Neck injuries are scary for anyone and a neck problem and playing football definitely don’t mix.