INDIANAPOLIS — When Mike Zimmer took a brief moment Thursday during his 20-minute media session to lament criticism over the Vikings drafting cornerback Mike Hughes in last year’s first round instead of an offensive lineman, a reporter threw out Hughes was playing well before his season-ending knee injury.
“Yeah, he was,” Zimmer said. “I didn’t have anything to do with the pick. Rick [Spielman] came up to me and said, ‘Hey, if so and so isn’t there, are you O.K. if I pick Hughes?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah.’ But they act like ah, I’ve got to have a corner.”
Oh, by the way, how is Hughes’ recovery?
“Yeah, I’m not sure,” Zimmer said. “I have an idea. You know, most ACLs, it may be a little longer. I don’t know. He’s doing great. He really is. It’s really hard to tell until you see him run and all that and how much longer he’s got to go.”
With agile feet and a sharp mind, Hughes quickly became a factor for the Vikings last summer when he started siphoning first-team nickel reps from Mackensie Alexander in training camp. He immediately earned a role in the defense, returning an interception for a touchdown in his NFL debut. Then his Week 6 injury derailed a promising rookie season. Hughes tore the ACL in his left knee while defending Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald Jr. He said in December the injury was a clean tear with no other ligament damage.
Now Hughes’ recovery is a factor in the Vikings’ immediate future at cornerback, where rumors swirled in February about starters Xavier Rhodes and Trae Waynes being on the trading block. These rumors have not been independently verified by the Star Tribune.
Zimmer was noncommittal when asked whether Hughes will be ready for the Vikings’ season opener in September, more than 10 months removed from his injury.
“Yeah, I don’t know,” Zimmer said. “I hope so. I don’t know.”
The Vikings have “an idea” of Hughes’ timeline, according to Zimmer, whom a year ago at the combine said he expected running back Dalvin Cook to possibly be ready for spring drills.
Hughes’ injury happened about two weeks after the one-year anniversary of Cook’s torn ACL. Cook was cleared for team drills by June, eased into live action during training camp, got his feet wet in the preseason and had 22 touches in the season opener.
While it’s too early to read much into Zimmer’s comments about Hughes, the ongoing recovery is worth noting when considering the Vikings’ depth at cornerback and whether it’ll be thinned. Should Rhodes or Waynes, whose $9 million salary isn’t guaranteed until March 13, get moved, the Vikings would likely have to rely on Holton Hill in a starting role.
Hill showed promise in three starts last season, but depth gets tested early and often as Zimmer knows.
“For some reason, they get hurt, so you have to have a lot of those guys,” Zimmer said when asked about hybrid defensive backs. “Because a lot of these games come down to coverage and how well they can play. That position is extremely important. You always want them big, long arms, can run, those kinds of things, but they’re not always like that. Find the best guys you can find.”