Crunching the Numbers: The Analytics Behind the Mike Hughes Pick

Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

With the Vikings’ pick of Mike Hughes, general manager Rick Spielman has selected another player with a mountain of appealing data backing up his acclaim. Hughes impresses on the field, in the gym and does it all as a young prodigy.

While at Central Florida, Hughes only gave up a 34.5 passer rating in coverage (per Pro Football Focus) when targeted, not giving up a single touchdown while adding four interceptions to his tally. He got his hand on the ball often, with 11 pass breakups.

One of the better statistics to predict cornerback performance in the NFL is “ball-hawk percentage,” a value that looks at how many times a player put his hands on the ball (pass breakups plus interceptions) and divides it by the number of targets he saw. This gives us a rough ability to discern their ball-tracking ability and in-route awareness, a critical trait for cornerbacks.

Hughes’ ball-hawk rate of 26.3 percent is pretty high, and the fact that he ranks sixth in this year’s draft in that statistic is impressive, especially after accounting for the fact that this year’s class is unusually good at generating pass deflections; last year the average cornerback posted a ball-hawk rate a good deal lower than this year.

Perhaps even more importantly, opposing passers avoided him when they could. Hughes saw 6.6 snaps in coverage for every target headed his way, above the average of players in his draft class — including ahead of Denzel Ward, Josh Jackson and Isaiah Oliver.

Overall, this meant that Hughes gave up 0.22 adjusted yards per snap in coverage, the  best of any cornerback in this year’s draft who played at least 200 snaps in coverage.

Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Hughes’ combination of deterring opposing passers while pouncing on the ball and preventing touchdowns makes him a production superstar, and his complete production profile is the second-best in this year’s draft and better than anybody who played seven or more games last year.

However, production isn’t the only thing that matters when it comes to breaking down data and projecting prospects into the NFL. We’ve found that athleticism at the position matters, and can provide us with a strong preview of what a cornerback can do in the NFL.

Hughes’ raw athletic profile may seem a little poor at first, given his relatively slow 40-yard dash (at 4.53 seconds, it’s slower than the NFL average of 4.49 at the position), but the rest of his athletic profile makes up for it.

Typically, corners with slow 40-yard dash scores and arm length below 32 inches are athletic duds. Hughes, on the other hand, has such excellent agility and explosion scores that he overcomes those problems with room to spare. Three-cone and short shuttle scores have historically been highly correlated to performance at the position, and Hughes’ eye-popping 6.70-second three-cone was faster than any cornerback in the Consensus Board’s top 150 players, and likely the fastest of any corner that will be drafted this year.

Add in an above-average short-shuttle performance and more-than-solid explosion scores and Hughes has the makings of an above-average athlete at cornerback.

The final element of an analytical profile, at least as far as our data goes, is age. There’s good evidence that younger players should get more of a “bonus” when it comes to their production and athleticism scores, as players in college get better as they get older — both athletically and in terms of on-field performance.

If it wasn’t for how unusually young this cornerback class is — four cornerbacks in the class are younger than him, whereas only one or two would be in a typical year — Hughes would not have missed the cutoff for his combined analytic score to make our top 20 analytic gems as his combined scores were the second-best of any cornerback in the class and the best when excluding Jaire Alexander, who only played six games in 2017.

All analytic scores are meant to be read like an IQ chart, with 100 being average and every 15 points in either direction representing one large tier.



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Luke Inman contributed to this story. After a week of practice that saw starting corner Trae Waynes limited due to injury and then absent for personal reasons, […]

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