Considering the the Minnesota Vikings’ draft history, it did not come as a huge surprise when they selected Mike Hughes with the 30th pick in the NFL Draft.
That night, general manager Rick Spielman reminded the media of a Mike Zimmer credo: You can never have too many cornerbacks.
While the Vikings had been expected by draft analysts to pick an offensive lineman and Hughes’ selection appeared to be more of a long-term play than a win-now pick, Spielman made a key point about the presence of the former University of South Florida star.
“I think by adding Mike it gives us a lot of depth at that position,” Spielman said.
Just days before the start of the 2017 season, the Vikings traded for veteran corner Tramaine Brock because they were concerned about depth. Mackensie Alexander struggled at times during training camp, forcing Terence Newman into a starting role at the nickel position – a spot he hadn’t played in years.
Brock was never needed. The Vikings starting corners Xavier Rhodes and Trae Waynes played 90 percent and 91 percent of total snaps, respectively, and the Newman/Alexander combo split up the slot snaps, with Newman playing the majority.
During OTAs, Alexander has been running with the first team as the slot corner with Hughes working with the second team. It appears Hughes will get a fair shot to start at the nickel.
“We’ve moved him around to a couple different positions so there’s a lot going on right now,” defensive coordinator George Edwards said. “It’s usually that way transitioning from college, the game is totally different for us. He’s done a good job, his talent shows, his skill set shows. We’re just working through it, refining it, hopefully keep continuing to get him ready to go.”
If Alexander takes a step in Year 3 just like Rhodes and Waynes before him and wins the slot job, Hughes will be the odd-man out. But he will act as a safety blanket for a number of scenarios.
The first being if Alexander looks better in camp than he does when the regular season kicks off. Zimmer could be quick with the hook if needed.
There’s also the injury bug. It stayed away from the Vikings’ secondary in 2017. Rhodes was nicked up at times last year, limping off the field on multiple occasions only to return a few plays later. If either he or Waynes goes down for any stretch of time, the Vikings should feel more comfortable with their first-round stepping in than 40-year-old Newman.
Unlike Brock, who joined the team late and never caught on, Hughes can be a rotational player, giving Rhodes and Waynes a series off from time to time.
One benefit of being selected by the Vikings is the group’s willingness to grow together. Rhodes and Waynes have become understudies of Newman and Alexander started learning from the master veteran last year as well. The group holds extra film sessions themselves each week.
“They’re a very unselfish group,” Edwards said. “Really, I think the unit as a whole, when you talk about the defensive line, the linebackers, and our secondary we do have some guys that are experienced. They’re grabbing these young guys and trying to help them through this process, accept the information as quickly as possible.”
In between notes about Hughes’ physical skills, Zimmer dropped in a subtle compliment about his rookie’s approach to the offseason activities.
“He has excellent acceleration and quickness, he wants to learn all the time.” Zimmer said.
Depending on that learning curve, the Vikings’ defensive mastermind head coach could get creative with Hughes. At the draft, Zimmer floated the idea of using four corners and one safety in some situations. Zimmer has not been known to use dime packages during his Vikings tenure, but he could elect to use four DBs, two safeties and one linebacker in some third down situations this season.
So on the defensive side, Hughes could provide depth and versatility. On special teams, there’s a chance he wins a spot as a punt and kick returner.
“We’ve worked with him a lot already starting in rookie minicamp starting earlier this month,” special teams coach Mike Priefer said. “Like any young player that comes in here, they don’t have the time in college to teach them a lot of the techniques that we have the time to teach them here. He’s been being taught stuff on how to track it correctly, how to catch it correctly. He’s got all the ability in the world. He is really starting to put it all together.”
Of course, if Hughes does win the starting slot job, the Vikings will have a secondary with four starting first-round picks. Just the way Zimmer likes it.