The cornerback position for the Kansas City Chiefs has been one of the most significant talking points surrounding the defense in the era of defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. The unit has succeeded with young players and short-term deals — and that’s the case again in 2021.
In May, the Chiefs added to the room by trading a sixth-round pick to the Minnesota Vikings in exchange for fourth-year cornerback Mike Hughes — the former first-round pick that is entering the final year of his rookie deal; the Vikings declined to pick up his fifth-year option, meaning the Chiefs aren’t able to exercise it either.
The main reason it didn’t work out with the Vikings was injury; Hughes has suffered a torn ACL and dealt with a lingering neck injury in his three seasons there. He ended last season on the Injured Reserve, but he was ready to be full-go at the start of training camp.
“I’m completely 100% man,” Hughes shared with reporters after practice on Saturday. “I’ve never felt better.”
Hughes has proven that true so far in camp. Behind cornerbacks Charvarius Ward and L’Jarius Sneed, there’s competition for the third spot in that position group — and it appears Hughes got the first crack at it.
We’ll see if it lasts when team sessions begin, but my initial look sees Ward at LCB, Sneed at RCB, with Hughes entering at RCB and Sneed kicking in for nickel looks. #Chiefs— Pete Sweeney (@pgsween) July 28, 2021
Hughes is competing with players like Deandre Baker and Rashad Fenton for the third cornerback spot in Nickel personnel. Even with Baker and Fenton having the advantage of experience in the system, Hughes got the early edge in the battle.
“Whatever the coaches want me to do, that’s what I’m going to do,” Hughes assured. “I’ve been playing straight outside so far; obviously with the Vikings, I was playing nickel and corner — but here I’ve just been playing outside. I’m still trying to get adjusted to the system. I’m doing everything the coaches are asking me to do. With my skill set, I feel like I can play anywhere.”
Not only does he feel comfortable playing anywhere, but he’s also comfortable playing in any type of technique or scheme.
“Press man, zone, off, whatever,” Hughes described. “I can do whatever.”
As multiple as Spagnuolo can be with his defensive plays, the cornerbacks primarily have a static responsibility. They’ll occasionally blitz, but they usually are in a specific alignment and coverage technique — one that Hughes is a fan of.
“Playing press man,” Hughes answered when asked what his favorite part of Spagnuolo’s scheme has been so far. “We do a lot of that. I’ve been working on my technique every day, kind of knocking the rust off; I was on the IR for most of last year. It’s been pretty good.”
Head coach Andy Reid has noticed Hughes so far in camp and came away impressed with the smaller details of his game.
“Mike is a worker,” Reid said of Hughes on Saturday. “Extremely tough, extremely disciplined, technique-oriented, fundamentals, and you see how he does everything with that. I’ve liked what I’ve seen there.”
As much as coach Reid’s input matters, it’s Hughes’ position coach that will determine how much Hughes should be involved in the Chiefs' defense. Hughes has already built a productive relationship with cornerbacks coach Sam Madison.
“Being a former player, obviously he knows Xs and Os.” Hughes said of Madison. “He’s been giving me certain techniques to add to my game, and it’s getting me better everyday. We talk on a daily basis; he’s always giving me pointers, and I’m taking it from the classroom to the field.”
There’s a long way to go until Week 1 of the regular season, but it’s encouraging to see Hughes make enough of an impression to take the first-team repetitions this early in camp. There’s no guarantees he’ll hold onto that role — but he’s given himself a good shot by coming into training camp prepared.
As a great man once said, the contract year is undefeated — and a former first-round pick with bad injury luck should be highly motivated to prove he’s still the player he was drafted to be.