As of Wednesday morning, the Detroit Lions had only signed five players from outside the franchise in free agency. Every single one of them received a one-year deal, and over half of them were signed at—or very close to—the league minimum. In other words, the Lions prioritized keeping their own over venturing outside for help, because, as Lions general manager Brad Holmes said last week, the grass is not always greener.
One of those exceptions was cornerback Mike Hughes. The Lions added yet another young, intriguing member to their secondary, and invested more than just the league minimum in him. Let’s take a closer look at that decision.
Much like Charles Harris last year, Mike Hughes enjoyed somewhat of a breakout season in 2021. A former first-round pick for the Minnesota Vikings, Hughes dealt with significant injuries in two of his first three seasons in the NFL, including a torn ACL his rookie year. When he was on the field, he struggled—as many young cornerbacks do. His only season with significant playing time in Minnesota resulted in a 58.7 PFF grade, allowing 41 catches on 65 targets for three touchdowns, one interceptions and seven pass breakups.
But after being traded to the Chiefs, Hughes rebounded nicely. He earned a solid 72.2 coverage grade (19th out of 72 NFL cornerbacks who played 50% of snaps or more). However, he did give up a league-high eight touchdowns on the year.
Overall, Hughes still looks far from the first-round talent the Vikings were hoping they were getting, but at 25 years old and coming off his best season, there is still room for him to grow into a potential full-time contributor.
Hughes’ fit will be very interesting to see in Detroit. He’s capable of playing both the slot and the outside, but he’s done his best work as a perimeter cornerback.
However, if the Lions plan to keep him on the outside, he’s going to be in competition with a lot of young, outside cornerbacks. Detroit’s current stable out outside cornerbacks include Jeff Okudah (23), Amani Oruwariye (26), Jerry Jacobs (24), and Ifeatu Melifonwu (22). It’s a crowded room, and everyone has something to prove. Having someone like Hughes is nice, especially since Okudah and Jacobs are coming off serious injuries, but there’s no guarantee he’ll ever crack the starting roster.
The path at nickel is far more wide open, and at 5-foot-10, he looks the part of a nickel. Last year, the Lions started undrafted rookie AJ Parker there for most of the season. While the 24-year-old cornerback held his own, Detroit could always stand to upgrade, or at least provide some serious competition.
In his Detroit introductory press conference last month, Hughes didn’t provide any clarity on where he’ll play this year.
“They asked me what I would rather play, and honestly, I don’t have a preference,” Hughes said. “Like you said, I have experience playing both. So wherever they see me fit is where I’ll play.”
One aspect of the game in which Hughes has a leg up on the competition is special teams. Hughes is capable of playing in all four phases of special teams, and even brings some skills as a kick and punt returner.
Originally reported as a one-year, $3.5 million deal, the contract is truly more like a $2.25 million deal, with $1 million guaranteed. To put that deal in perspective, Hughes’ 2022 cap hit ranks 68th among NFL corners, tied with Texans corner Tavierre Thomas, and just above the likes of M.J. Stewart and Denver’s K’Waun Williams.
That may be a little on the higher end for a fringe starter, but that’s nitpicking a little too much. A $2.25 million cap hit is not a nuisance to Detroit’s books, and if things go off the rails, Detroit could easily recoup over half of that by cutting him before the season. Overall, I would say this is a perfectly fair contract for both sides with enough incentives built in for Hughes to make it worth his while—especially with the opportunity to actually make it on the field in Detroit.
I was a little surprised to see the Lions add another young, unproven talent to their secondary, when it seems like they could use a veteran to help with an incredibly young team. That said, putting a former first-round pick whose career seems to be on the upswing in the hands of defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn also seems like a pretty sound strategy. Last year, we saw Oruwariye, Parker and Jacobs all exceed expectations under Glenn’s tutelage.
I still wonder whether Hughes will ever really see the field on defense, but I’m not one to complain about high-upside depth that comes at a reasonable price and can contribute on special teams. Grade: B
What grade do you give the signing of CB Mike Hughes?
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