It’s time to kick off my favorite list and that’s the Top 10 Draft Fits list. Of the 30 players I’ve put on this list over the past three seasons, 3 of them (Danny Shelton, Eric Rowe, Cyrus Jones) are on the Patriots current 90 man roster although only Jones was originally drafted by the Patriots.
The first player to make the list, coming in at #10 is Central Florida’s Mike Hughes. Hughes was originally recruited by North Carolina, but an incident had him dismissed from their program and he wound up playing down in Orlando after a year in community college. He helped the Golden Knights to a 13-0 record in the 2017 season, including a win against Auburn in a New Year’s Six Bowl (Peach Bowl). In his only season with Central Florida Hughes recorded 11 pass breakups and 4 interceptions on the season. He was also their punt returner, returning 13 punts for 232 yards and 1 touchdown.
His 5’10” height puts him at a disadvantage against larger receivers on the boundary, which is why I think he ends up playing the slot corner position. Hughes has really good quickness and agility scores from the combine with a 1.59 10-second split, 4.13 5-10-5 shuttle, and 6.70 3-cone, which play well for him as a potential slot corner. The Patriots don’t have a need for Hughes to step in right away to contribute as a corner with 4 capable CBs on the depth chart ahead of him in Stephon Gilmore, Eric Rowe, Jonathan Jones, and the recently acquired Jason McCourty.
Height: 5’10 1/8”
Broad Jump: 10’7”
5-10-5 Shuttle: 4.13
vs. Auburn 2017 (Peach Bowl)
Hughes plays a solid game against #7 Auburn, primarily lined up at left corner. He was at his best when it came to challenging receivers on the line of scrimmage and disrupting the route. That’s also why Auburn used stacked receiver formations on his side of the field for a lot of success. The one time he was challenged in 1-on-1 coverage Hughes was all over the route and nearly came away with an interception in the end zone. His tackling technique looks like a work in progress where he’s just trying to hit low instead of wrap-up the receiver, one time getting burned by a spin move that turned a TFL into a 1st down. That issue is very fixable with Josh Boyer and Bill Belichick teaching proper open-field tackling technique. This game answers the competition level answer for Hughes playing out of a mid-major conference.
vs. Maryland 2017
There isn’t much to watch here as it looked like Maryland was avoiding Hughes all game. The one time he was targeted, the receiver ran a 10-yard hitch against off-man but the ball bounced off the receiver’s helmet and Hughes easily caught the deflected pass for a Pick Six. I see similarities with the Auburn tape where his tackling technique needs fixing and that’s an easily correctable issue as I mentioned earlier.
vs. Memphis 2017
Hughes is targeted 5 times in the game, allowing 2 receptions overall. Three of those routes were slants, although only the first route was completed as he broke up the other two slants ran against him. He records an interception off a deflected pass on a broken play. The cutup also includes one punt return opportunity in the game. Hughes nearly came away with a pick six when he undercut a curl route.
Rookie Year Projection
There isn’t an immediate need for Hughes to play corner for the Patriots as the team has considerable depth at the position already. He does come with value on Special Teams as a kick and punt returner, although the Patriots already have their kick returner in Cordarrelle Patterson. Hughes would be 5th on the depth chart in 2018 and could see time if NE has injuries and/or plays with 4 CBs on certain packages, but could be 2nd in 2019. His only path to being one of the 46 active players is as a return man.
Long Term Fit
Drafting Hughes has more 2019-2021 in mind for the Patriots. The Patriots took a shot on a similar talent in Cyrus Jones two seasons ago, but Jones hasn’t shown the ability that he can be a productive punt returner and corner yet. Hughes plays physical on the boundary despite his shorter than ideal height, similar to former Patriots CB Malcolm Butler. His tackling technique needs to be fixed, although his speed and return skills makes him a valuable asset in the kicking game as a returner and possible gunner.
Hughes is a 1-year starter at Central Florida, but a strong season in pass coverage has him as a fringe 1st round prospect. His incident at North Carolina involved an assault at a fraternity house and was kicked out of a Power 5 program. The biggest issue could be if he has the size and physicality to play on the boundary. As I mentioned earlier, 5’10” is not ideal size for a boundary corner and at times can get pushed around by larger and more physical receivers at the top of route stems. Even with those concerns, it’s a solid gamble to see because not every boundary WR is as big or physical Alshon Jeffery or Brandon Marshall.
Jason McCourty (Hughes’ athletic numbers are more similar to Devin McCourty’s from 2010, but I figure you’d rather have a CB comp than a safety comp)
Grade: 4/5 Future Starter
If the Patriots already didn’t have good CB depth already, Hughes would be a solid fit breaking in as a CB2 or slot corner. Given that he wouldn’t start right away, I bumped the grade down from Starter to Future Starter.
Draft Projection: 31 or 43
Hughes wouldn’t be my ideal pick at 31 given the Patriots have bigger draft needs than corner, but if there is a run of linebackers and Justin Reid is not on the board the Patriots could target Hughes as a guy who can contribute as a returner in Year 1 and develop as a starter outside or in the slot in Year 2. Hughes’ ability to impact the game on all 4 downs could entice the Patriots to draft him should they trade back from 31 or if he’s available at 43. If the Patriots can’t find a trade partner, 31 is a decent spot to pick him up at because it would give the team 5 years of team control for Hughes.