The Vikings 1 Standout Player No One Saw Coming

Duke Shelley

In 2021, it was K.J. Osborn, a wide receiver who had a quiet rookie season in 2020 and sprung out of nowhere to become the Minnesota Vikings undisputed WR3.

Heading into 2022, a year of change and culture shift for the Vikings, there had to be at least one player who followed suit. And in Kevin O’Connell’s first year, the one Vikings standout player no one saw coming was cornerback Duke Shelley.

The Vikings 1 Standout
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A cast-off from the Chicago Bears, Shelley joined the Vikings in September on the team’s practice squad, leaving fans to wonder, “Who’s the guy with the cool name?” For a while, Shelley was “just a guy” signed to the practice squad who’d play if cornerback depth dwindled to slim pickings.

Well, cornerback depth indeed tunneled into slim pickings.

That’s where Shelley saw his opening. The 6th Round draft pick by the Chicago Bears began experiencing playing time versus the Buffalo Bills — in one of the wildest NFL games anyone can witness. Before that opportunity, Shelley played a handful of special teams snaps but evidently wasn’t trusted on the field for defensive duty.

The Vikings 1 Standout Player No One Saw Coming

Yet, against the Bills, the Vikings were down to nubbins for CB depth, and Shelley took over for some crunchtime pass breakups. Fans thought, “Neat. That guy, whoever he is, made a couple of plays.” But Shelley’s theatrics blossomed into more than one-game heroism.

Vikings Will See 7 Old Friends on Bears Roster
Duke Shelley. © Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports.

The 26-year-old has taken the starting job from veteran CB Cameron Dantzler and doesn’t appear to be on the cusp of relinquishing it. Coupled with a catchy name, Duke, Shelley has become a Vikings phenomenon, prompting some fans’ social media accounts to change profile names to some iterations of Duke Fan or Duke Stan.

The man is scrappy as hell, genuinely an adept cornerback, and seized the moment. In fact, against his old team, the Bears, last weekend, Shelley snagged his first career interception out of the sky, likely solidifying his role as a Vikings starter for the upcoming playoff push. Shelley tweeted about the Bears after the Week 18 Vikings win, “They had to feel how disrespected I felt when they cut me.”

Operating with an undeniable chip on his shoulder — rightfully so, as the Bears defense turned out to be woeful in 2022 without him — Shelley has earned a spot in the NFL among the league’s top cornerbacks, if that can be believed. With an 81.5 grade from Pro Football Focus, Shelley finished the 2022 season as the NFL’s seventh-best cornerback.

Vikings Will See 7 Old
Minnesota Vikings cornerback Duke Shelley. © Tork Mason / USA TODAY NETWORK.

This cannot be overstated — Shelley was supposed to be a “practice squad guy” who never actually played. Oodles of players join NFL teams for practice squad depth and merely marinate with the group until the season ends, and onto free agency they proceed. Shelley emphatically is not that guy.

Too, Vikings fans find themselves in a spot with the regular season in the books wondering where in the world the team would be without Shelley. Minnesota’s defense finished 2022 ranked second-to-last per yards allowed to opponents. The switch to a 3-4 scheme did not go swimmingly. In that regard, Shelley saved the day, starting with the Bills game, and stopped the bleeding.

He’ll play in his first postseason game this weekend as the Vikings host the New York Giants. Shelley has likely put enough on tape to prove his performance isn’t a fluke. With any luck, he’ll remain a Vikings starter into 2023. He logged an unholy-good 55.3 passer-rating-against in 2022.