On the night of the 2018 NFL Draft, Rick Spielman and Mike Zimmer were as happy as they could be. The Minnesota Vikings were on the clock and coming off an appearance in the NFC title game. They were looking for the piece that could put them over the top.
“There he is, Zim,” Spielman laughed. “We got our guy at 30.”
Zimmer smirked and gave Spielman a thumbs up. Spielman grabbed the phone when. But just as he was about to call in the pick, a Vikings fan appeared from the future?
“You need to draft Lamar,” the fan screamed as security rushed to grab him. “DRAFT LAMAR JACKSON!!!”
Security escorted the fan away, and Spielman went on about his business. When he finally connected with NFL headquarters, he made the pick.
“Yes, we would like to select Mike Hughes,” Spielman said.
Well, that’s probably not how it went down. But you get the point.
Outside of Brian O’Neill, the 2018 draft was a rough one for the Vikings. If fans had a DeLorean, there’s a chance they would have charged into the war room just like our good friend, Sven, and demanded they take a franchise quarterback.
But the Vikings had a path to make the Hughes pick work out, and it would have started by giving him one more chance this season.
To understand where the Vikings were with Hughes, you have to go back to his rookie year. Through the first six weeks, Hughes had earned playing time starting in Week 1, a rarity in the Zimmer era. Although Hughes had a pick-six in the season opener against the San Francisco 49ers, it was because of a busted route. Hughes was making strides, owning the third-highest PFF grade among Vikings cornerbacks.
Although his 1.64 yards per coverage snap and his 112.4 passer rating left room for improvement, it was nothing some more experience couldn’t fix. But he tore three different ligaments in his knee on a kickoff return in Week 6 and spent nearly a full calendar year rehabbing.
A knee injury like that can sap any athleticism a player has. For a cornerback, it’s like being a one-legged man in a 100-meter sprint, and wide receivers took advantage throughout the 2019 season. Hughes’ PFF grade declined, but he took steps forward in yards per coverage snap (1.45), and passer rating allowed (95.8).
Those numbers brought optimism for Hughes heading into 2020, where he started for the Vikings in Week 1. But a broken neck suffered at the end of the 2019 season had residual effects, and Hughes was out for the season after four games.
Hughes was deemed unreliable after playing in just half of the Vikings’ games during his first three seasons. But there’s an argument to be made that he could have been a low-risk, high-reward player this year.
The Vikings’ secondary needed a retooling after it fell apart last year. Although Cameron Dantzler had an excellent stretch toward the end of the season, he also battled several injuries. The group was given a boost with the signing of Patrick Peterson but took a hit when Jeff Gladney was accused of domestic violence last April.
With the nature of Gladney’s allegations, the Vikings had to have known they needed a contingency plan. They were never going to pick up Hughes’ fifth-year option because it carried a $9.7 million guarantee for 2022. But keeping him around for $1.8 million this season could have provided depth to a group that was going to need it.
Instead, the Vikings traded Hughes to the Kansas City Chiefs. In the deal, KC swapped a 2021 sixth-round pick for a Vikings 2021 seventh-round pick. But it was clear why they did it: Minnesota didn’t want him around anymore.
That deal was a miss. Hughes has had a revival with the Chiefs. He has only started three out of 12 games, but he’s made an impact, owning the sixth-highest PFF grade among qualifying cornerbacks this season. Hughes has also significantly improved in coverage, allowing 1.18 yards per coverage snap.
Last week, Hughes’ 2021 reached its high point when he recorded nine tackles and had a fumble return for a touchdown in Kansas City’s 48-9 win over the Las Vegas Raiders. The performance earned him the AFC’s Defensive Player of the Week award.
This type of performance has dwarfed what Bashaud Breeland has done in Minnesota. While Breeland has struggled, it’s even more frustrating for Vikings fans considering that he was with the Chiefs last season. That adds another dimension to the trade that makes it feel like the Vikings got hosed.
In a best-case scenario, the Vikings could have kept Hughes and had him break out in Minnesota. Even if they decided to sign Breeland, Hughes would be a better option to turn to than the current trio of Cameron Dantzler, Harrison Hand, and Kris Boyd.
Instead, Zimmer spends these days at press conferences pulling his hair out over his current group of cornerbacks. If the Vikings had given Hughes one last chance, it could have helped this struggling defense.