They drafted a receiver in the first round in 2016. They used their top two picks on offensive players last year, a month after signing two offensive linemen and a running back in free agency. And last month, the Vikings made Kirk Cousins the highest-paid player in the NFL, giving their new quarterback a fully guaranteed $84 million contract.
The first round of the draft Thursday night, though, saw the Vikings make a return, of sorts, to their roots.
The team used the 30th overall pick in the draft on Central Florida cornerback Mike Hughes, spending a first-round pick on a defensive back for the fourth time in six years and continuing to invest in the league’s top-ranked defense.
Hughes, who played one season at UCF, intercepted four passes and returned one for a touchdown last season, while returning two kicks and one punt for scores.
“We value cover guys here, along with our pass rushers,” coach Mike Zimmer said. “This guy has the traits we’re looking for. We have an understanding of exactly what we’re looking for. I do think the punt return and the kick return did play a big part of it. We weren’t as explosive in our return game as we wanted to be last year. This kid will help us in all phases of special teams, and we’re going to mature him into being a full-time player. I don’t know how soon that will be, but he’s got the traits we’re looking for.”
A report before the draft tied Hughes’ departure from North Carolina to a 2015 sexual assault allegation that did not lead to any charges. He played at Garden City Community College in Kansas in 2016, before going to UCF. The Vikings had Hughes at their practice facility in Eagan at their top-30 prospects event, and also visited with him at the scouting combine and at his pro day.
Hughes also was charged with misdemeanor assault after a 2015 incident at a fraternity party, though those charges were eventually dropped after Hughes completed community service.
“We spent a lot of time with a lot of people that had him in their football programs,” General Manager Rick Spielman said. “We spent a lot of time with people outside of football programs. After our extensive research, no question, we felt very confident with him coming in and being a Minnesota Viking.”
The 5-10 Hughes can play as an outside corner or in the slot, Zimmer said, though the coach said Hughes wasn’t drafted to push third-year corner Mackensie Alexander. Zimmer said there’s still a chance 39-year-old Terence Newman could return in 2018, and the team’s depth at cornerback could enable the coach to use nickel packages with four corners and one safety.
The draft kicked off with fireworks Thursday, as both the Bills and Cardinals moved up to acquire their quarterbacks of the future. Four quarterbacks — Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold, Josh Allen and Josh Rosen — were selected in the top 10, marking the first time that many QBs have been top-10 picks since the common draft era began in 1967.
The Lions took Arkansas center Frank Ragnow with the 20th overall pick, kicking off a run on interior offensive linemen who might have interested the Vikings. Ragnow, a Chanhassen native, had met with the Vikings before the draft, and the team had also looked at Ohio State center Billy Price, who went 21st overall to Cincinnati.
Two picks after Price went to the Bengals, the Patriots took Georgia guard Isaiah Wynn with the 23rd overall pick, making him the fourth interior offensive linemen selected. Spielman, though, said he is optimistic about the options the Vikings will have on the offensive line in Day 2 of the draft.
“You try to anticipate [the run on offensive linemen],” Spielman said. “Maybe we liked this guy or we liked that guy, but in a sense, it’s like, ‘I can’t believe this guy is still here when we’re picking.” That’s the fun part of the draft.”