Vikings rookie Mike Hughes makes impact sooner than expected

EAGAN, Minn. -- The Minnesota Vikings selecting an offensive lineman in the first round of the draft in April felt inevitable. Veteran right guard Joe Berger had retired a month before and they needed to find a replacement who would allow Mike Remmers to stay at right tackle. That logic seemed to make sense.

Drafting Mike Hughes, a cornerback from UCF, with the 30th overall pick appeared at the time like a move made for the future. Even with more pressing needs, Minnesota wanted to add a key piece to its secondary. Mike Zimmer reminded that a team "can never have too many cornerbacks."

"As many times as we can find guys that can cover around here, the more we want," Zimmer said the day after Hughes was drafted.

Fast forward five months to Hughes’ rookie debut against the San Francisco 49ers, a moment that came far sooner than expecte. After getting the nod to start at nickel over an injured Mackensie Alexander (ankle), Hughes slid to the outside to fill in for Trae Waynes after he injured his knee.

Minnesota’s defensive front supplied pressure that forced 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garappolo to turn to his right and make an ill-advised pass. Hughes, who gave Kendrick Bourne a 5-yard cushion before the snap, dropped back with his eyes locked on the quarterback, and intercepted the pass for the first pick-six of his career.

"We expect him to go out there and do that," Zimmer said. "That’s why we drafted him. Everybody was complaining about taking that corner, I’m glad we had him today."

Hughes impressed coaches from the beginning with his understanding of the scheme and ability to pick up the intricacies of one of the most complex positions on the defense. About halfway through the preseason he made his push at slot corner.

The role he’s filling now is beyond what was expected for his rookie season. His contributions at corner slightly lessened his workload on special teams, where long ago looked like the place he would make his biggest impact in Year 1. Hughes played 13 snaps on special teams and lined up deep as a kickoff returner.

Much of that is his own doing. Zimmer has praised Hughes for excelling at the mental aspect of playing inside and how quickly he’s grasped what’s being asked of him. And that's rare from a coach who typically doesn't laud rookie corners.

Some of that is also due to circumstance.

After 15 seasons in the NFL, Terence Newman retired on roster cut-down day, taking himself out of the mix at nickel corner and freeing up his spot for a younger player, likely undrafted rookie Holton Hill. Any doubt that the job in the slot was between Alexander and Hughes was erased that day.

Then there were the injuries that thinned out the Vikings' cornerback depth. Hughes moving outside for Waynes (Hill played four snaps at corner and was targeted heavily) caused Zimmer to go to a three-safety set, bringing in Jayron Kearse to fill in at nickel.

The flexibility Hughes provided the Vikings in Week 1 is an important tool. He defended three passes, including a breakup in the end zone when he cut away from his receiver on the outside and made contact with Pierre Garcon to prohibit the touchdown.

His debut wasn’t perfect. Zimmer noted some hiccups and Hughes admitted to leaving "a lot of mistakes on the field." Had Hughes not tripped, that pass breakup in the end zone might have been his second interception.

"He was competitive, he got up there and he typically challenged the receivers," Zimmer said. "A lot of young guys, when they go in there and they’re playing their first game, they’re going to play a little bit cautious. He wasn’t like that at all. He tries to be too perfect all of the time, because he wants to do everything right, so sometimes he tries to do everything a little bit too perfect instead of just using his ability and some of those things."

Once Alexander is ready to return, it’ll be interesting to see how Minnesota approaches where Hughes goes. Does he hang onto his spot in the slot, or do the Vikings want to keep him as a roving depth piece in the secondary? Not every corner can transition as well as he did from nickel to the outside.

The playing time Hughes got in his debut was more than enough to want him craving more. His early impact is already paying dividends for a team that was able to capitalize on his potential much sooner than expected.

"He takes in everything from everyone around him, learns from everybody," Kearse said. "You could see it through OTAs and training camp. The guy moves great in and out of his breaks, fluid in his hips, so it’s not surprising he got out there (Sunday) and had a big game. I talked to him about it and told him now you’ve just got to keep it going."