Usually around the time the calendar threatens to turn to August, the hype train has reached full speed on the most promising Minnesota Vikings rookies.
Considering that most interviews elicit positive responses and players aren’t put in positions to be overly exposed in practice, there’s rarely reason to believe anything but the best about the next generation of talent.
But stay cautious, especially when it comes to corners.
First-round pick Mike Hughes is the latest project for Mike Zimmer, who has groomed three young corners since arriving in Minnesota. He inherited second-year corner Xavier Rhodes, drafted Trae Waynes in the first round in 2015, then snagged Mackensie Alexander in the second round in 2016.
The truth is: All three of his previous proteges have been lauded for their early progress, but none of them have been immediate impact players.
Rhodes was given praise for his size and strength by then-coach Leslie Frazier. Defensive backs coach Joe Woods and teammate Chris Cook applauded him for his physicality, as well as his coachability.
The Florida State product struggled to gain traction his first season, however. The first-rounder played 57.8 percent of snaps on the league’s second-worst pass defense. He didn’t turn a corner until roughly half a season being instructed by Zimmer in 2014.
Waynes was repeatedly complimented throughout the summer of 2015 as being a quick study. Nickel corner Captain Munnerlyn described him as a “fast learner.” Zimmer said he was “right on course.” Defensive coordinator George Edwards even went as far as to say the Vikings were “aiming” to make Waynes the Week 1 starter.
Ultimately, Waynes played just 18.2 percent of snaps that season. It took him until 2017 — his third season — to make the leap as a respected corner.
How about Alexander in 2016?
The brash 54th overall pick from Clemson was branded a “competitor” numerous times. He was being mentored by Terence Newman and ostensibly doing what asked of him.
“He’s has got great quickness. He’s got great confidence. He’s got great competitiveness,” Zimmer said that offseason. “He’s very, very quick, and he wants to challenge receivers. … I think his technique is getting better. He’s playing a couple different spots, but he’s used to it. The right side, left side doesn’t bother him.”
Perhaps the most prescient thing Zimmer said that summer came later in the preseason after a poor performance by Alexander. “I love this kid, honestly. He’s going to be a handful until I get him squared away, but I love this kid. He’s a competitor, he works, he studies, he fights.”
Alexander played just 68 defensive snaps as a rookie. He upped it to 32.5 percent last season, but he is locked in a battle with Newman and Hughes, the new rookie, for the nickel job.
These platitudes may all have been genuine at the time, but the reality is that true progress is hard to judge until real games have been played.
Hughes gets the first chance of training camp Monday to put on pads. His first game audition is a week from Saturday at Denver.
But there’s been no shortage of praise from his coaches and teammates in the first week of camp.
“He’s really paying attention to the details of what we are asking out of each call and out of that position,” Edwards said of his work in the nickel.
How about someone who faces him in practice?
“He is a smart guy, a great locker room guy and plays the game the right away,” said receiver Adam Thielen. “He is instinctive, quick, and seems like every time I’ve gone against him he’s there to make the play.”
Perhaps Hughes’ greatest benefit is the cornerback group around him. As we’ve laid out, the highly-touted corners above him on the depth chart have had their own pratfalls. Fortunately, it seems they’re willing to share their experiences with him.
“It’s a transition,” Rhodes said of Hughes’ journey to the pros. “Playing within the rules, that’s basically every rookie corner’s hardest transition is playing within the rules. As time goes on, he’s going to learn, and we are going to have to adapt, so hopefully he learns faster than I did. If so, he’ll be on his way.”
Said Edwards, “I think they feel good gravitating to [Xavier] with the success that he’s had out there at the position of corner. They see the success that he’s had, and obviously they want to try to mimic that success.”
Another truism: Not all corners are created equal, therefore their developments may differ. The lanky Waynes, for example, brought a different skillset to his first camp than the undersized Alexander.
All of them, though, must first pass the Zimmer Test.
“Basically, you go through the same process with all of them,” Zimmer said Monday. “Some of them you can advance a little bit quicker than others. The techniques we teach aren’t really that hard, but it’s different than they’re used to doing. That takes a while until they can really perfect it. Even guys like Xavier are still trying to perfect it.”
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