More than ever before, NFL teams will be leaning on experience following an offseason with no practices and a seemingly abridged training camp with no preseason games in which to prepare.
But the Minnesota Vikings have little seasoning at a key spot. With the departure of seven-year veteran Xavier Rhodes, five-year vet Trae Waynes and four-year vet Mackensie Alexander, the Vikings lost 16 combined years of experience at cornerback, leaving them with nothing but youth during a tough time for young players to acclimate.
Barring a late addition to the team’s roster — which is reportedly supposed to be trimmed to 80 players — the Vikings will enter the 2020 season without a corner with more than two years experience or 1,000 career snaps at the pro level.
Mike Hughes leads the way with 742 snaps in 20 career games out of a possible 32. A 2018 ACL tear slowed him at the start of 2019, while a broken vertebra in Hughes’ neck ended his 2019 season prematurely, bookending his season with concerning injuries. While his former first-round status makes him the presumed No. 1 in the pecking order, Hughes is an unstable CB1 for a team that’s prided itself on its pass defense for years.
As such, a door has been left wide open for third-year man Holton Hill to not only contribute on the 2020 Vikings, but star. Propose that scenario to a Vikings fan in 2018 and they might’ve scoffed, but it’s now a distinct possibility in what shapes up to be a challenging season for the Vikings’ secondary.
If not for an eight-game substance-abuse suspension in 2019, Hill would likely have more career snaps than Hughes. Health-wise, he is already in a better place than Hughes, and physically may be better equipped to match up with opponents’ top receivers using his 6’2″ frame. Due to a dearth of nickel-capable corners on the roster, Hughes may be asked to take over Alexander’s spot in the slot, leaving Hill to man one of the all-important boundary spots.
The elephant in the room is Hill’s off-the-field decision-making, which put him in hot water with the league and his own coach last offseason. Separate PED and substance-abuse violations led to his half-season suspension, which he ostensibly spent in head coach Mike Zimmer’s doghouse. Zimmer was curt when speaking about Hill after his suspension, even indicating that Hill’s roster spot was in jeopardy. In training camp, Hill was demoted to playing with the 3s and 4s, which turned out to be a clear mismatch in favor of Hill. The University of Texas product has consistently performed above his UDFA status on the field, but that shouldn’t be a surprise. Hill dropped from a possible early-round draft pick to undrafted because of off-field issues (which were essentially validated by his double suspension). Talent, though, has not been his problem.
Look at Hill’s rookie year, where he was called into action in 14 games — 10 times for 10 or more snaps and four times for 50 or more snaps, per Pro Football Focus. Isolating those four games where Hill got the longest look, he had a top 10 coverage grade amongst all NFL corners.
Take Hill’s 2018 season as a whole, and he ranked fourth in lowest reception percentage against (51.6%) and ninth in lowest passer rating against (67.0). He allowed just one reception over 20 yards, a 40-yard grab by Taylor Gabriel in Week 17 where Hill was in great position and Gabriel made a remarkable diving catch. His 2019 was more disjointed due to the suspension and therefore harder to evaluate. Hill only played 25 or more snaps in three games and faced just 10 targets on the season, allowing seven catches.
Again, the overall sample size is relatively small. But when asked to play for longer stretches, Hill has actually performed well. Well enough to believe that the 2020 secondary isn’t necessarily doomed by default. In fact, Hill’s excellent rookie performances may provide some hope that new rookies Jeff Gladney, Cameron Dantzler and Harrison Hand can enjoy some first-year success as well. Granted, Hill got a full offseason before his rookie year. Gladney, Dantzler and Hand did not.
Hill may be more than just a placeholder for one of the draft picks. His two years of sporadic appearances show a capable corner who has as much claim to the top corner spot as Hughes. Entering the final year of his rookie contract, Hill has incentive to stay out of trouble and play for his next contract as he becomes a restricted free agent next March. While COVID-19 will have an adverse affect on many players’ opportunities, it may have given Hill a boost. Vikings fans should expect him to start, and they may enjoy the results.