There might have been a few double takes from the fanbase when it heard the announcement of Minnesota Vikings first-round draft pick Mike Hughes.
‘He’s too short for a cornerback.’
‘He only played one year.’
‘He received a misdemeanor and was accused of sexual assault as a freshman at North Carolina.’
These are all issues the Vikings certainly were forced to reconcile when they found themselves on the clock with Pick 30.
A run on offensive lineman between Picks 15-23 took four potential targets off the board at Minnesota’s greatest position of need, tempting them to look elsewhere. With 39-year-old Terence Newman’s future in doubt — and Mackensie Alexander’s first two seasons somewhat underwhelming — the Vikings added a cornerback in Round 1 for the third time since 2013.
Character concerns or not, the Vikings were too infatuated with Hughes’ film to let him slip through their fingers.
“The one thing that Coach Zimmer preaches is the quickness out of his transition,” said Spielman at Thursday’s press conference, “which means out of his backpedal. How quickly can he get from point A to point B? As we sat there and watched the tape together, we felt he was one of the top corners as far as the quickness we’re looking for.”
“My ball skills, my jumping ability and also in the return game,” said Hughes on a conference call. “I think I can help out in all three phases.”
But there’s still the issue of his past.
Dalvin Cook, the Vikings’ first pick a season ago, also came to the team with a litany of legal issues, but through one full year has been nothing but a model citizen. The expectation will be the same for Hughes, who broke another man’s nose in a physical altercation in October 2015 and had to show teams evidentiary text messages to appease them about an alleged sexual assault.
“We spent a lot of time with a lot of people that had had him in their football programs,” said Spielman. “We spent a lot of time outside the football programs, and after our extensive research, no question, we felt very confident with him coming in and being a Minnesota Viking.”
His 2017 performance earned Hughes a first-round grade. After spending 2016 at community college, Hughes emerged at Central Florida with 49 tackles, four interceptions, 11 passes defended and one forced fumble, not to mention a 31.8-yard kick return average.
But are the defensive numbers are a product of being too reckless?
“I don’t know if it’s gambling or aggressive,” said head coach Mike Zimmer, “but that doesn’t bother me at all. I’ve had some pretty aggressive corners in my day. I’d rather tell them ‘whoa’ as opposed to ‘go.’”
While one year in the American Athletic Conference may not compose the thoroughest of resumes, the Vikings are relying on the oft-used buzz word that surrounds so many rookies: Upside.
“He’s not going to be forced to come in and be a starter right away,” Spielman said. “We feel pretty good about our two corners, and Mackensie’s coming along, so he’s going to get an opportunity to come in. Coaches are going to take their time to develop this kid, and when he’s ready to go, he’ll be ready to go. But we think this kid has tremendous upside, from what we’ve seen.”
Hughes stands just a tick over 5-foot-10, an inch below new teammate Alexander, who was also perceived as undersized.
Zimmer did his best, though, to kibosh that stigma.
“He’s 5-10.1,” said Zimmer. “Our prototype starts at 5-10.5, so it’s four-tenths or something different, so it’s not that big a deal.”
Anytime a major decision goes against the grain, questions will have to be answered; often numerous times. Zimmer may spend the remainder of the summer putting to rest qualms about the pick.
And there will always be the urge to second guess. With offensive linemen Connor Williams, Will Hernandez and James Daniels on the board at 30, would the Vikings have been better served taking a potential plug-and-play starter rather than a cornerback that may spend a year in a limited role? Or could they have traded the pick for further draft currency?
The Vikings surely understood the gamble, yet made the pick anyway.
Not a team known for any sort of recklessness with its draft picks, the Vikings’ brashness with their unexpected move should instill confidence for any puzzled fans.
They truly did take their best player available.