Unlikely Vikings Defender Has Quietly Stolen Starting Gig

Unlikely Vikings Defender Has Quietly Stolen Starting Gig
Minnesota Vikings Helmet

When the training camp started, the Vikings had a bunch of potential starters available on the two outside cornerback positions. The hope was that a few of those players would step up and improve the defensive backfield.

Patrick Peterson was re-signed. He didn’t play at a very high level in the past few seasons and therefore took a hefty pay cut. Peterson played for a salary of $10 million in 2021 and $4 million in 2022. Surprisingly, the 32-year-old suddenly looks a lot like the prime version of himself, an annual Pro Bowl attendant. It’s unusual for players at that age to improve their level of play, especially at a position that relies heavily on athleticism like a cornerback. He has one of the two available cornerback jobs locked up.

Unlikely Vikings Defender Has Quietly Stolen Starting Gig

In addition to Peterson, the Vikings had third-year player Cameron Dantzler, veteran free agent signing Chandon Sullivan, who is playing in the slot, and two rookies, Andrew Booth and Akayleb Evans. Dantzler won the camp battle against Booth. It turned out that it wasn’t really a battle because Booth wasn’t ready to play. He then suffered an injury and missed the start of the season. Halfway through the season, a new contender for the starting job arrived.

Duke Shelley

Unlikely Vikings Defender
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The Kansas State prospect entered the draft in 2019, and the Chicago Bears picked him up in the sixth round. Despite his draft status as a late-round pick, Shelley appeared in nine games as a rookie. He primarily contributed to special teams.

In his second year, Shelley played 11 games and started two of them, including one against the Vikings. He played about 300 snaps on defense and special teams combined. In 2021, Shelley even started four games and played over 400 snaps on defense until a hamstring injury forced him to miss some games. His PFF grades looked like those of a backup with spot starts, which is precisely his role.

Minnesota Vikings cornerback Duke Shelley (20) signals an incompletion after breaking up a pass intended for Green Bay Packers wide receiver Christian Watson. Tork Mason/USA TODAY NETWORK

On August 31, the Bears waived the cornerback, and the Vikings signed him to the practice squad a week later, where he stayed for about two months before the purple team promoted him to the active roster.

Starter Dantzler was placed on injured reserve, Booth was a liability and later also hurt, and Evans missed time with two separate concussions. The Vikings relied on Shelley to step up, and he did just that. Impressive pass breakups were normal for the undersized cornerback, even against much bigger receivers. Shelley started the games against the Patriots, Colts, Giants, and Packers.

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

Per PFF, Shelley was targeted 36 times and allowed only 19 completions while making eight pass breakups. The quarterback’s passer rating when targeting Shelley has been 72.6. What the statistics don’t show is that he was in perfect coverage on a few other plays that resulted in catches.

Dantzler is back to full health, but the Vikings kept Shelley in the starting lineup and only inserted Dantzler when they pulled the starters in garbage time. Shelley has been a pleasant surprise for the Vikings and will likely continue to be the starter opposite of Peterson. His PFF grade, 76.6, is the 14th-best of all 74 eligible NFL cornerbacks.

The veteran cornerback is having a career year. After the season, he’ll be a free agent, and the Vikings will probably try to re-sign him. However, it will be interesting to see who will be the starter next season when the two rookies have spent a year in the league.

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