Third-year corner Mike Hughes will never forget his first career regular season game. His pick six of Jimmy Garoppolo in the third quarter of Week 1 propelled the Vikings to a victory over the San Francisco 49ers.
Less publicized are the months of growth that led up to that moment: the slow burn of offseason practices, the month and a half of training camp, the four preseason games. This year’s class of rookie corners won’t have development opportunities even close to what Hughes had back in 2018. After an offseason of exclusively virtual meetings, they’re being asked to get up to speed — and likely contribute immediately — with only three weeks of full team practices and no preseason games.
“With a young group I feel if we can put this thing together, we can do something special,” Hughes said. “I’m sure a lot of teams or critics or whoever don’t think we have a lot to prove, but I think we do. If we can keep these guys rolling and trust in one another, we can really get something rolling.”
With first-round pick Jeff Gladney, third-round pick Cameron Dantzler and fifth-round pick Harrison Hand, there is talent to groom, and the early returns have been encouraging with the secondary standing out through three days of full-team practices. But a lot of growth remains and none of the rookie corners have been asked to tackle an NFL player yet. They likely won’t have that chance until Week 1, save for some rare full-contact drills in practice if Mike Zimmer allows it.
Maybe for the defensive backs he would make an exception. The head coach is used to having strong tacklers at the cornerback position between Trae Waynes, Terence Newman and Xavier Rhodes, and he said Monday that corners who have a problem tackling “probably aren’t going to play.” Zimmer has vowed to keep a strong perimeter run force on the defense.
“Most of these corners don’t tackle very well coming out of college,” Zimmer said. “You find out if they want to tackle, that’s the biggest thing. If they want to tackle and they’re not very good at it, then you try to get them better at what they’re doing. If they don’t want to tackle — ‘I’m just a cover guy’ — then that’s a little different story.
“They always say that you improve the most from your first to second game because you get a chance to evaluate and look at things and change some things that aren’t working. We won’t have that luxury this year.”
Games are the best way to work out the kinks, but COVID-19 has forced the league to table its preseason. Hughes had a strong preseason back in 2018 with four run stops and only two completions permitted, per Pro Football Focus. He says the value in preseason games for rookies is neutralizing the nerves.
“Just to kind of get that first NFL game out of the way, get the jitters out of the way,” he said. “Obviously, it’s different this year, so guys will have to kind of build through that during camp. The advice that I would give guys is, you’ve been playing this game your whole life. Just go out there, play within the scheme, try to have fun and just do your job. Obviously, it’s different. Guys have to wait until the first regular season game to kind of get in that mode.”
It’s hard to foresee which corners will and won’t struggle with the bright lights of a regular season game. After all, they haven’t even had fans at training camp practices to provide an audience. The quality of their early-season performances may correlate with their level of confidence. Perhaps confidence will come from opportunity. Gladney and Dantzler are already seeing first-team reps.
“Gladney’s got a lot of confidence,” said Zimmer. “I think Cam has got a lot of confidence. It’s being comfortable with what they’re doing, and I think that allows them to be confident.”
Technique will be more crucial than scheme in the early going as Zimmer drills the rookies’ footwork along with new defensive backs coach Daronte Jones. Proper technique mitigates the need to grab receivers, which can happen when corners are in the wrong position. Waynes and Mackensie Alexander both struggled with illegal use of their hands early in their careers.
Press coverage skills will also be vital to develop. Zimmer had complained in prior years about the league’s restriction on playing press until a designated point in training camp, so one can imagine his frustration being forced to coach press either on Zoom or at a walkthrough pace until mid-August.
“We have to try to get the different techniques down first, then we can talk more about schemes and things like that,” Zimmer said. “Initially, it’s about footwork and technique, and obviously the different responsibilities they have on the defenses. But we go at a pretty good pace, so that shouldn’t be an issue.”
Despite all the adversity seemingly facing the secondary, there is a sense of optimism. Zimmer seems to smirk when confronted with the opinion that his secondary will decline. He likes the combination of size, speed and athleticism that he and Rick Spielman have assembled and seems eager to prove wrong those that are skeptical of the expedited process. Perhaps Hughes is proof that Zimmer can, indeed, get corners ready quickly. Hughes was a meaningful contributor in the first quarter of 2018 before a torn ACL set him back. Now at age 23, he’s the veteran, and like Zimmer, he’s also optimistic.
“Everybody’s still trying to get to know each other,” Hughes said. “Everyone’s trying to get a feel for how the league works and how everything works just around the NFL. I’m starting to see guys get a little bit more comfortable and being a little bit more talkative. I think it’s great.”