A $75K investment in Holton Hill pays off for Vikings

EAGAN, Minn. -- Ahead of rookie minicamp in May, the Minnesota Vikings doled out $316,000 in guaranteed money to a handful of undrafted free agents brought in for offseason workouts. Among them was cornerback Holton Hill, widely considered the top UDFA among this year's rookie pool.

Hill was given the most guaranteed money of all the Minnesota non-draftees, receiving a $15,000 signing bonus and $60,000 in base salary guarantees. His $75,000 in guaranteed money was the fourth most in the NFL among undrafted free agents, according to Spotrac.

In the grand scheme, $75,000 is a drop in the bucket for any NFL franchise. After all, on Saturday, Minnesota incurred $400,000 in dead money after releasing wide receiver Kendall Wright during roster cuts.

But the financial commitment the Vikings made to Hill and other undrafted free agents who made the initial 53-man roster, including running backs Mike Boone and Roc Thomas, supports the belief this franchise has that those players will one day develop into key contributors.

Hill's journey from an undrafted free agent to one of six cornerbacks on the Vikings' roster took several twists and turns over the past 11 months.

Projected to hear his name called in the fourth or fifth round, Hill went undrafted in April in large part because of off-the-field concerns. As a junior at Texas, Hill started the first nine games for the Longhorns and totaled 51 tackles, two interceptions, three defensive touchdowns, six pass break-ups and a forced fumble. His season was cut short on Nov. 7, 2017 when coach Tom Herman suspended Hill indefinitely for an unspecified violation of team rules. Months later, Hill decided to forgo his senior season and declare for the draft.

Bleacher Report reported in early May that Hill failed the mandatory drug test at the combine. Hill told NFL Network in late May that he sought help for his issues with marijuana.

The Vikings did their homework on Hill, spending ample time with him in Indianapolis and during one of the teams allotted 30 visits with prospects. His skill set was never in question, leading Minnesota to open the door for the 6-foot-2, 197-pound corner whose rare physical traits set him apart.

It was up to Hill to determine how he would approach the chance he was granted.

"We've done our due diligence," Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said this offseason. "We've talked with every one of his coaches he has ever had in his entire life, I think. We've talked to a lot of people at the University of Texas and we feel comfortable with the situation. But it's about the opportunity and what he does with that opportunity is up to him."

Hill's receptiveness to coaching and willingness to learn caught the eye of veteran players immediately. Three days into training camp, he was already seeking the advice of tenured cornerbacks by staying after practice to work on technique with Terence Newman and Xavier Rhodes.

Even without seeing the full breadth of his abilities at that point, his teammates could project where Hill would make his biggest impact.

"I think it's going to be something where he creates a lot of matchup problems because he'll be able to match up with tall guys, short guys, he's got great size," Newman said.

Hill's first preseason outing was rough, most noticeably when he missed an assignment on special teams that allowed Denver to return a punt for a touchdown. But those early-season blunders didn't affect his confidence. Over the next three games, he showed signs of improvement.

"I felt that last week was probably one of his better weeks," defensive coordinator George Edwards said during the final week of the preseason. "He got up and he pressed, and he's still working to perfect the press technique, but is a lot better getting up and challenging routes. We just look for him to continually show progress that way, because he's got the ability to stay on top of routes. He's got the ability to cover, but understanding the techniques and fundamentals and doing it consistently every day is a big thing for him right now. We just look for him to continue to progress."

With his roster spot on the line, Hill came through when it mattered most, notching six tackles and deflecting a pass in the fourth preseason game at Tennessee while impressing in his debut as a returner, taking a kickoff return 53 yards against the Titans.

Hill's ceiling and future potential tipped the scale in his favor Saturday. It's possible he wouldn't have cleared waivers and would have wound up back on Minnesota's practice squad, so stashing him as a depth option in a loaded secondary (the numbers of which were aided by Newman's retirement Saturday) helped Hill's case.

He is further away in his development than fellow rookie Mike Hughes, the first-round cornerback who coaches have lauded throughout the preseason for his seamless transition from college to the NFL and for his ability to pick up the intricacies of the nickel position.

Hill still has "a ways to go" before he, too, can be a regular contributor in the league's No. 1 defense. But the high-risk, high-reward nature of his story helped the Vikings in determining his fit on this team, assessing where he fits now and projecting his impact in the future. Zimmer's track record of developing young corners into elite talent speaks for itself. There's hope that Hill will be a name rattled among many of his success stories.

"He's got a lot of good attributes," Zimmer said. "I think he's a willing learner, he's a willing tackler. He's got good cover skills. He's got to perfect his technique better. Like all rookies, it's kind of taken him awhile to get to where he needs to be exactly."