In a season full of unexpected twists, turns, and improbabilities, perhaps one of the most surprising developments occurred when the Minnesota Vikings upset the Buffalo Bills. Moments before Patrick Peterson‘s interception to seal the victory, the Vikings’ defense held strong with a key pass breakup in the back of the end zone by a defensive back picked up off the Chicago Bears’ practice squad by the name of Duke Shelley.
It was a cool moment to see Shelley make such a huge play in his first meaningful action, but little did we know he’d be more than just a flash in the pan this season. Shelley has balled out. And for a team depleted and desperate for quality young corners, this is a pretty big deal.
Some Vikings fans are still haunted by the memory of Rick Spielman’s many first-round dart throws at cornerback, and it seemed to be an obvious need for the Vikings again this offseason. Andrew Booth still needs plenty of development, and that’s also barring an injury setback. Cam Dantzler is consistently inconsistent. And the ol’ vet Patrick Peterson is just that: old. Before Shelley’s emergence, cornerback was listed consistently near the top of positional needs for the Vikings.
But, thanks to Shelley, that glaring weakness may be more of a modest concern.
We can pump the brakes a bit. The 5’9” corner out of Kansas State may not be of the caliber of a truly elite player like Jaire Alexander, but maybe in time, he could grade out higher than the Green Bay Packers’ star.
Oh, wait, he already did that.
Well, hey, that’s not a huge sample size. Maybe he just wasn’t tested because of bracket coverage with safety help?
Oh dang, he’s actually been tested pretty consistently and has yet to give up a touchdown. And he’s got 10 pass breakups in five games. Call that a fluke if you want, but if so, it’s a very impressive one.
Shelley is a fascinating player to watch, stylistically. He’s already drawing comparisons to Vikings franchise legend Antoine Winfield. And, while he’s still got a ways to go to reach that level, they are cut from a similar mold. Both are shorter players who play bigger than their measurables would suggest.
He’s a scrappy, press-man corner who’s unafraid to tackle and play tough on the outside. Despite being pigeonholed as exclusively a nickel corner coming out of college due to his size, he’s thrived on the boundary for Minnesota this season. He plays with a tenacity that pays off. Just ask Chase Claypool, who watched Shelley blanket him, pick off a pass, and then spike the ball on his former team’s logo at Soldier Field. That kind of attitude defines Shelley’s play and is quickly making him a fan favorite.
The Winfield comparison seems the most common, but to me, he’s reminiscent of Captain Munnerlyn. The former Viking also boasted inside/outside flexibility at 5’9”. And, like Shelley, Munnerlyn also played with a chip on his shoulder.
Shelley should be incentivized to play well this postseason. Every extra game Minnesota plays is another audition for him to show that this five-game sample size is who he can truly be as a player and that he deserves to be in Minnesota’s long-term plans. More importantly, if the Vikings are going to parlay this 13-win season into any sort of playoff magic, they will need Shelley to rise to the occasion again.
Minnesota’s defense has been a disaster for much of the season. Still, a quality duo of corners in Peterson and Shelley could cover up many of the other glaring issues for defensive coordinator Ed Donatell.
This postseason is going to be a baptism by fire for Shelley. Then again, so was the Buffalo game. And when all we’ve seen him do is ball out and step up in big moments, who are we to say he can’t do it again?
With all the resources invested in defensive backs by the Vikings over the past few seasons, finding their new starter off the Bears’ scrap heap is honestly pretty hilarious. In the exchange of waiver-wire pickups — Duke Shelley to Minnesota and Ihmir Smith-Marsette to Chicago — the Bears were certainly more than generous.
Kwesi Adofo-Mensah should send Ryan Poles a fruit basket or something because he may have just solved the Vikings’ cornerback problem.