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Zulgad: Mike Hughes is latest example of importance Vikings now put on cornerback spot

By Judd Zulgad

The lasting impression from Mike Zimmer’s first training camp as the Vikings’ coach in 2014 was the time he spent basically in the back pocket of then second-year cornerback Xavier Rhodes.

The Vikings had made Rhodes the second of their three first-round selections (25th overall) the previous year, and while it was clear Rhodes had talent the amount of time Zimmer devoted to working with him on the sun-baked fields in Mankato turned him into a Pro Bowl player who has developed into one of the NFL’s top corners.

Two years later, the Vikings used another first-round selection on a cornerback by taking Trae Waynes out of Michigan State.

Waynes, who was taken 11th overall, became another project for Zimmer and his defensive coaches. He started only one of 15 games in which he played as rookie before seeing that number increase to eight starts in 15 games in 2016. Last season, Waynes had gained Zimmer’s trust to the point where he started all 16 regular-season games as well as both playoff games.

Rhodes’ growth under Zimmer earned him a five-year, $70.1 million contract last July that included $32.8 million in guarantees. Waynes’ development should result in a significant payday for him after his contract expires following the 2019 season.

And now there is another first-round cornerback about to learn under Zimmer’s watchful eye. While many of us expected the Vikings might take a guard with their first-round pick on Thursday night, general manager Rick Spielman, certainly with some strong nudging from his head coach, decided to use the 30th pick on cornerback Mike Hughes.

Hughes had four interceptions last year in playing his only season for a Central Florida team that went 13-0 overall and 8-0 in the American Athletic Conference. Hughes, who was a junior, had started his collegiate career at North Carolina but was suspended and left the school after a fraternity house incident that led to a misdemeanor assault charge. Hughes spent a season at Garden City Community College in Kansas before transferring to Central Florida.

Hughes, like Rhodes and Waynes before him, will get what amounts to a graduate-level class on playing cornerback from Zimmer.

The Vikings’ short- and long-term plans for Hughes could be very different. Hughes is only listed at 5-foot-10 so it would not be surprising if the Vikings’ immediate plan is to work him in as the slot corner. But with Waynes’ contract expiring in two years, and the Vikings facing some difficult decisions as to which players to reward with long-term deals, Hughes could eventually move to the outside if Waynes goes elsewhere.

Drafting Hughes almost assures that Zimmer-favorite Terence Newman won’t be returning for a 16th season at the age of 40. It also means that 2016 second-round pick Mackensie Alexander might not be developing as quickly as the Vikings had hoped, although this organization seems to get the importance of stockpiling young depth in the defensive backfield.

Zimmer now has the potential to start two Vikings’ first-round picks at the outside corner spots in Rhodes and Waynes and another at the inside position in Hughes. The Vikings liked Hughes enough that they passed on taking a guard in the opening round, despite the fact the team has a clear need at that spot.

It had to be tempting to grab UTEP’s Will Hernandez with the 30th pick, and he almost certainly will be gone when the Vikings’ second-round pick, the 62nd-overall selection, comes up on Friday.

The Vikings’ willingness to use first-round picks on cornerbacks is no accident and goes beyond the fact that Zimmer likely is pushing for it. Shortly after Spielman arrived, and when former coach Brad Childress had final say on the 53-man roster, the Vikings used third-round picks on guys like Marcus McCauley (2007), Asher Allen (2009) and in 2010 they took Chris Cook in the second round.

All had brief and unsuccessful stints in Minnesota, leaving a few wondering why the franchise did not invest its first pick on such an important position. Clearly, that philosophy has changed.

Rhodes and Waynes have turned into success stories by combining their first-round talents with what they have learned under Zimmer. The Vikings are hoping that Zimmer can make it 3-for-3 with Hughes.

The post Zulgad: Mike Hughes is latest example of importance Vikings now put on cornerback spot appeared first on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.

Source:: 1500 ESPN Sportswire

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