ESPN Names Pleasant Surprise for Vikings

Unlikely Vikings Defender
Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports.

The Vikings had multiple pleasant surprises in their victory over the Colts. Of course, the biggest surprise was coming back from a 33-point deficit, the largest comeback in NFL history, but a few unexpected players had an excellent game.

K.J. Osborn reached a career-high receiving yardage output as he torched the Colts’ cornerbacks for 157 yards on ten receptions. Multiple of those catches came in crucial moments. He also extended plays by running tough after the catch. Osborn had 97 yards after catching the football. In addition, Osborn scored the first points for the Vikings when he hauled in a touchdown in the third quarter that started the second-half surge.

Greg Joseph is another candidate for this honor, as he made all five kicks he attempted. Earlier in the season, Joseph struggled with extra points but hit all four extra points. Those kicks were crucial in the comeback. His best moment was undoubtedly his game-winning field goal attempt in overtime, a kick that changed the score on the board to 39-36 and clinched the Vikings division championship, their first one since 2017.

ESPN Names Pleasant Surprise for Vikings

ESPN’s Kevin Seifert had a different Viking in mind.

Duke Shelley

ESPN Names Pleasant
Dawson Knox and Duke Shelley. © JAMIE GERMANO / USA TODAY NETWORK.

The cornerback filled in for Cameron Dantzler, who struggled with an illness. Interestingly, Dantzler was active but didn’t see the field. It’s possible that he was just activated as an emergency option in case of injuries to other players.

At one point this season, the Vikings had three of their top four cornerbacks — Cameron Dantzler Sr., Akayleb Evans and Andrew Booth Jr. — on injured reserve. Shelley, a four-year veteran signed to the practice squad in Week 1, has helped them navigate that distress better than anyone could have imagined. He didn’t get a single defensive snap until Week 10, but he has started two games and made game-saving plays in both of them. Although Dantzler is back from injured reserve, it appears that Shelley has supplanted him as the starter opposite Patrick Peterson. He has gotten his hands on five passes since Week 12.

Kevin Seifert, ESPN, about Duke Shelley

Shelley played every snap of the game and recorded the highest PFF grade of all Vikings. Shelley had three tackles in the victory over the Colts and allowed only two of six targets to be caught. He also added two pass breakups to his stat sheet. Shelley is an unlikely contributor, as he started the season on the Vikings practice squad after the Bears cut him on the final cut day.

The cornerback is 26 years old and is experiencing a late-career breakout. Shelley is an undersized player at his position. Usually, 5’9″ defensive backs play inside as nickel cornerbacks. Shelley, however, is playing outside, and taking his size into account, he is doing a wonderful job. In his first few game-action snaps, Shelley made impressive stops in the endzone.

Defensive coordinator Ed Donatell spoke to the media on Wednesday and didn’t want to reveal the plan for the cornerback position going forward.

We haven’t set anything yet. But you can’t measure what’s inside of that guy. You see him come up big in moments for this team and his contributions will be needed down the line.

Defensive coordinator Ed Donatell about CB Duke Shelley

None of the cornerbacks on the Vikings roster is a lockdown cornerback like the 2017 version of Xavier Rhodes. For that reason, the defenders must come up big in clutch moments like Shelley did multiple times.

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Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports.

The unlikely hero also drew praise from teammate and cornerback colleague Chandon Sullivan.

We’re trying to get more aggressive. We want the rushers to rush and the back end to cover and make plays, and that’s what we’ve been able to do, especially with guys like Duke.

CB Chandon Sullivan about Duke Shelley

Drawing praise from teammates and coaches is an early sign that Shelley has a shot at staying in the starting lineup. It’s also possible that Dantzler will return to the field, and Shelley will be a backup and rotational player, an important role.

Janik Eckardt is a football fan who likes numbers and stats. The Vikings became his favorite team despite their quarterback at the time, Christian Ponder. He is a walking soccer encyclopedia, loves watching sitcoms, and Classic rock is his music genre of choice. Follow him on Twitter if you like the Vikings: @JanikEckardt