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10 Vikings Potential X-Factors in 2020: Mike Hughes

EAGAN, Minn. — The rapidly approaching 2020 season will provide plenty of Vikings players with an opportunity to play key roles.

But some players will be in the spotlight more than others, whether it is because of roster turnover or their own progression in recent years.

Both of those scenarios could be true for cornerback Mike Hughes, who is the ninth player in this 10-part series of potential X-factors.

Rookies are excluded, as are veterans who have already cemented themselves as vital players on the Vikings.

Here's why the 2018 first-round pick could be an X-factor in 2020:

— Experience at two important positions

— Resiliency

— Boosted confidence

2019 Recap

Stat line: 43 tackles (39 solo), one tackle for loss, two forced fumbles, one interception, 11 passes defended

With five career starts, Hughes is the clubhouse leader for a young cornerbacks group that has delivered more than a few impressive moments during training camp.

The 30th overall pick of the 2018 NFL Draft has shown promise as an outside cornerback and in covering the slot. He also has returned 16 punts for 117 yards (7.3 average) and four kickoffs for 107 yards (26.8 average). Additionally, Hughes has shown intensity when tasked with serving on Vikings coverage units.

Injuries have hindered Hughes, who tore his ACL against Arizona in his sixth pro game. Hughes worked his way back into the lineup in Week 3 of the 2019 season, but a neck injury in the regular-season finale kept him from participating in the playoffs.

Best Splash Play So Far

Hughes — and Vikings fans — didn't have to wait long to celebrate. The former UCF star recorded an interception in his first career game, picking off Jimmy Garoppolo and returning the ball 28 yards for a touchdown in Minnesota's 24-16 victory over San Francisco in Week 1 of the 2018 season.

Garoppolo attempted to unload the pass quickly to avoid pressure, but Hughes read the play and easily nabbed the football, becoming the first Vikings rookie to record a pick-six in his NFL debut.

2020 Outlook

Hughes is entering his third pro season healthy after recovering from the neck injury he suffered while making a tackle against the Bears in Week 17. He recently explained that scans revealed a "little crack in the bone."

"Over the offseason, I saw a couple different doctors just to get some opinions, and we heard nothing but good news," Hughes said. "We didn't think it was that serious from that point on. Got cleared to do everything, so I'm ready to go." 

Rather than requiring surgery, Hughes said the injury just needed time to heal.

The Vikings have built on the experience that Hughes gained in his first two seasons on the outside and in the slot.

Although the nickel is under the cornerbacks umbrella, there are numerous differences for covering players on the outside, compared to in the slot. Outside defenders can use the sideline to help reduce coverage area, and they have more time to react because of the greater distance the ball has to travel to get from a quarterback to the receiver.

Slot defenders, meanwhile, have to be ready for more options of routes by receivers, must react more quickly and interact well with each level of the defense.

The positions are important in a league where passing has become paramount, and the players in the two outside spots and the slot are expected to be tested by Green Bay in Week 1.

"I anticipate playing both positions," Hughes said. "I've been playing both since I stepped into this league, so whatever the coaches feel like I do best, I'll roll with that and do whatever I can to help my team." 

New Vikings defensive backs coach Daronte Jones said Minnesota is trying to "fine-tune some of the details" in a scheme that Hughes has played and learned for two seasons.

"He's kind of one of the veterans in the room at that position," Jones said. "So for Mike, it was just really cleaning up some things, really honing in on the details of the coverages, and so it was kind of a smoother transition because he has experience inside and outside."

Hughes has been resilient, to say the least. He has shown a definitive passion for playing football since arriving in Minnesota and hasn't been shy in run support.

The native of New Bern, North Carolina, is hoping to "tap into some new levels" he was unable to reach in his first two seasons.

"I'm coming into this year 100-percent confident in my body and how I feel and the work I've put in this offseason," Hughes said. "I'm pretty confident."

Head Coach Mike Zimmer described Hughes as "very talented" and a "good conscientious person" who can further boost his confidence in his ability.

"He needs to continue to have more confidence in himself. He needs to have more belief that when he goes out there he can cover anybody," Zimmer said. "I think that's the biggest thing with Mike. If Mike will just say, 'Hey I got this guy. It's me. Let's go, you and me.' I think that part will help him mature faster and be a better player quicker." 

Hughes said he has spoken with Zimmer about that and wants to channel a chip on his shoulder to "kind of let loose and be who I am as a football player and person."

"He's brought it up. I don't take it as a negative," Hughes said. "Just put your head down and work hard, and that confidence will build, however long it takes. For me, I feel pretty confident in everything I'm doing and everything they're doing with me, so hopefully we can keep building on that." 

While much attention has been placed on Minnesota's cornerbacks group being virtually unproven at the NFL level, Hughes said he believes the group has a lot to prove and can silence critics.

He's ready to apply what he's learned so far and continue to develop.

"It's a little different [to be the most experienced player at the position], but like I said, at the end of the day, it's just football," Hughes said. "I'm learning every day. Even our vets are still learning every day, just taking bits and pieces from every little game, from the coach's brain. I think it'll all help us out in the long run. We'll be all right."

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