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With injuries to the secondary, Mike Hughes steps in, and then steps up

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The rookie made a heck of a first impression

NFL: San Francisco 49ers at Minnesota Vikings Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

When the Vikings played the San Francisco 49ers yesterday, the secondary began the game a bit short handed. Starting nickel CB Mackensie Alexander was inactive due to an ankle injury, suffered midway through the preseason, so that meant first round pick Mike Hughes would get some extensive action in his first NFL game.

Then in the first half, starting LCB Trae Waynes went out with a knee injury and didn’t return. What was a deep secondary was suddenly thin, and Hughes moved outside, playing every snap, and facing one of the most talented young QB’s in the league.

Welcome to the NFL.

Hughes was thrown into the fire, and he came out on the other side largely unscathed. By my unofficial count looking at play by play scripts, Hughes was targeted five times, allowing two completions for 48 yards. One was a big 39 yarder to Dante Pettis, one of several uncharacteristic big plays the Vikings defense gave up in their 24-16 win.

However, he also had three passes defended, one of which broke up a touchdown. He also had this highlight:

For the game, he got a PFF grade of 73.1, compared to a 44.5 grade from Waynes before he went out. Speaking of Waynes, before he left in the second quarter with his knee injury, I have him having two passes completed on him on three targets, for 21 yards and a defensive pass interference penalty. He did, however, have a nice pass break up in the end zone where he stripped the ball from Dante Pettis after it looked like it was going to be a catch and a score:

Again, just so we’re clear, I’m just reviewing play by play scripts, not watching a replay of the game, so the overall numbers could be off a bit.

The bottom line for me is that Hughes played a good game, and in the limited time he was in, Waynes appeared to struggle.

When Hughes was drafted, there were a lot of fans and experts surprised that Minnesota didn’t take an offensive lineman in the first round. They took T Brian O’Neill in the second, though, then signed Tom Compton in free agency, and then traded for Brett Jones a couple weeks ago, so the line was addressed. Just not in the manner in which folks thought it should have, which is what I think is the main reason for the complaining.

That approach to both positions by the VIkings goes to the larger philosophy that it’s easier to find a serviceable interior offensive lineman than it is a good cornerback, so with no clear lineman on the board, the Vikes took Hughes.

Now that pick seems prescient.

With injuries to Alexander and now Waynes, and Terence Newman trading in his helmet for a whistle, what was one of the deepest secondaries in the league got thin awfully fast, and if Hughes hadn’t been there, Holton Hill and Marcus Sherels would have been the top two CB’s. Because of injuries, Hughes played 52 off 66 defensive snaps, or 79% of the game. S Jayron Kearse even saw some time at nickel, and Hill did too, but only for a handful of plays.

Hill shows a ton of promise, but I don’t think he’s nearly as talented or polished as Hughes is at this stage of their careers. He may be one day, but right now it’s not even close.

Mike Zimmer praised both Kearse and Hill for stepping up and playing roles they weren’t used to, but if Hughes isn’t there yesterday, do the Vikings win 24-16? No. Do they even win the game? I don’t know.

Alexander’s ankle injury and the knee injury Waynes suffered might be minor, but they could be things that linger. Anything that affects a player’s ability to move and cut, especially at the corner position, can be things that could be season altering issues, and having a solid player like Hughes gives the Vikings position flexibility because he can play both the slot and on the outside. The injuries to Alexander and Waynes are still concerning though, because losing two guys this early in one position group means there’s no room for error injury-wise until one or both can come back.

The sooner they’re back, the better. Not only for position depth, but for other reasons, too. I’m not saying Hughes needs to be the immediate starter at LCB, or even the nickel spot, but I am saying both Alexander and Waynes need to read up on a guy named Wally Pipp.

Because if Hughes keeps playing well, not only is the squawking about drafting him over a guard going to subside (lol wait no it won’t who am I kidding), it’s going to be tougher and tougher for either Alexander or Waynes to get back on the field when they do get healthy.