From pretty early in training camp, it was clear that Mike Hughes had special talent.
Normally Mike Zimmer is cautious about over-praising young corners, but in mid-August, the Minnesota Vikings’ head coach raved about how quickly the team’s first-round pick was coming along as a nickel corner. In Hughes’ first preseason performance, he wasted no time getting his feet wet, blowing up a run play and allowing zero catches into his coverage.
So when the former University of Central Florida standout made one of the biggest plays in Sunday’s opener against the San Francisco 49ers, picking off a Jimmy Garoppolo pass and running it back for a touchdown, nobody was stunned.
Hughes was a tremendous prospect coming out of college. ESPN’s Mel Kiper ranked him as the 19th best player in the draft. Following the Vikings’ selection of Hughes, Pro Football Focus noted the incredible numbers he’d posted with UCF.
There were few more talented corners in this draft than Hughes, who allowed a passer rating of just 40.7 over his college career when targeted. He surrendered just one touchdown an wasn’t beaten for a pass longer than 21 yards in his entire 2017 season.
There has never been a doubt that the Vikings added a Year 1 contributor and potential star when they selected Hughes with the 30th overall pick.
Yet there appears to be a perception that the decision to draft him was widely criticized.
Following Sunday’s win, Zimmer quipped: “That’s why we drafted him. Everybody was complaining about taking that corner, I’m glad we had him today.”
There’s something that needs clarification as we look back throughout this year on the impact of using the first-round pick on a defensive back: It wasn’t until the second and third rounds of the draft concluded that questions arose about the strategy to wait until the 62nd pick to take an offensive lineman.
With the retirement of excellent veteran guard Joe Berger, there was a very strong need for the Vikings to pick an offensive lineman — as they did with their second-round pick, taking tackle Brian O’Neill.
However, it was obvious from draft night that O’Neill was going to need development rather than being a plug-and-play lineman.
In a draft stuffed with very good offensive line prospects, the Vikings landed the 12th lineman off the board. The Vikings’ brass said they had never seen a run on linemen like the one that happened in the second round.
“Sitting there watching [offensive linemen] peel off at the top of the second round, they were flying off the board quicker than any time I can remember,” GM Rick Spielman said on Day 2.
The presence of Will Hernandez — who was on the board when Hughes was taken — adds fuel to the what-if fire. The former UTEP guard dominated the NFL Combine and was a monster on tape. It was hard for fans to miss clips of him tossing opponents around or moving smoothly in Combine drills. He was taken four picks after Hughes.
In free agency, the Vikings also did not add a lineman. Considering the money they needed to spend this offseason to sign Kirk Cousins, Sheldon Richardson, Danielle Hunter and Stefon Diggs, it’s understandable that they did not attempt to go big with free agents like Nate Solder or Justin Pugh, but the lack of attention to the 2018 version of the O-line was — and remains — concerning in a season in which the Vikings are a Super Bowl contender.
That is especially true with Cousins under center. He lost more yards to sacks than any other quarterback in the NFL in 2017 and struggled to perform at the same level as when Washington’s offensive line was solid in 2016.
So the analysis of the 2018 draft ultimately will not be about Hughes, who was a consensus good prospect and positive addition to the Vikings’ defensive back corps. It will be about whether Cousins is protected by the offensive line — and more specifically whether Rashod Hill holds up at right tackle and Mike Remmers transitions nicely to right guard.