Hughes' role changed in November when nickel back Donald Strickland suffered a hip injury. Although Strickland did not miss any games, the injury opened the door for Hughes to step into the nickel role and shine. As the season wore on and Strickland become healthier, it became clear the Chargers planned to stick with the hot hand.
Hughes earned his first career start this year (in Week 9 against his former team, the Indianapolis Colts) when the Chargers opened in their nickel defense. He played in 12 games altogether and finished with a personal best 26 tackles.
WR Legedu Naanee
Adding to Hughes' value is his ability to cover kicks, a trait that is increasingly difficult to find amongst Chargers players. That alone should be enough to get him an invite back next season.
Hughes has four accrued seasons, so assuming the new collective bargaining agreement reverts to the old rule requiring just four years to reach free agency, he will be free to sign with whoever he wants. The Chargers would like to bring him back, but the team has other players higher on its to-do list, such as Vincent Jackson, Malcom Floyd, Jeromey Clary, Kevin Burnett, Eric Weddle and Brandon Siler.
Nonetheless, it is important the Chargers not lose sight of role players like Hughes. He has earned the right to be a part of a secondary that may have a very different look next year, depending on what happens not only with Weddle, but also fellow free agents Paul Oliver, Pat Watkins and Tyrone Carter.
The Chargers can't just hope they get lucky and that every other team forgets about Hughes until A.J. Smith & Co. have the rest of their cards in order. That kind of thing just does not happen … at least not three times in a row.
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Michael Lombardo is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America and a long-time contributor to the Scout.com network. His analysis has been published by the NFL Network, Fox Sports and MySpace Sports. He has followed the Chargers for more than 15 years and covered the team since 2003. You can see more of his updates by following him on twitter.