Seeing Duke Shelley listed on the back end of the Las Vegas Raiders first unofficial depth cart was a peculiar site.
After having a stellar 2022 campaign as a shut down cornerback for the Minnesota Vikings, Shelley’s arrival in Las Vegas seemingly meant the free agent addition would compete for a starting outside corner role in the desert. That was an apt assumption considering the Vikings allowed the ultra-productive cornerback to walk in free agency and ink an affordable and modest one-year, $1.3 million deal.
Yet, based on the Raiders’ initial depth chart, out of the 12 cornerbacks on the roster, Shelley as on the back end listed was CB7 or CB8. A surprising status for a cornerback that shined in 2022 and earned Pro Football Focus’ No. 4 overall best cornerback ranking with a 82.9 grade. All that despite being only 5-foot-8 and 183 pounds. Of course, as an unofficial depth chart, Las Vegas made it be known the situation was fluid.
Then came the joint practice with the San Francisco 49ers, where Shelley showed off how sticky he can be in coverage along with the ability to take the ball away with interceptions. The fifth-year veteran event got the starting nod in the preseason opener against the Niners and had his mitts on an in-game pick.
It didn’t turn out the way Shelley wanted. Take a look:
Trey Lance makes a horrible decision here but gets bailed out because Duke Shelley couldn’t hang onto the INT pic.twitter.com/G1wHieyf5N— Joel Moran (@joelvmoran) August 13, 2023
Despite the near-interception resulting in a deflection that fell into the eager mitts of the 49ers for the score, Shelley being in the vicinity and having the awareness to make a play on the ball is something Las Vegas didn’t do enough of last season. That in itself is a positive sign of a potential paradigm shift in the desert.
Shelley continued to be every bit a nuisance in coverage when the Raiders and Los Angeles Rams had joint practices in Southern California before the two team’s preseason clash Saturday. The 26-year-old cornerback got his mitts on Rams passes aplenty and once again earned the start in preseason game No. 2 for the Raiders, racking up three total tackles (two solo) in the team’s 34-17 win.
With his recent practice surges and steady play in the two preseason games, Shelley has a chance to be a rotational outside corner, if not starter on the perimeter in 2023. Marcus Peters is slated to be the Raiders top cornerback with Nate Hobbs earmarked to man the nickel slot role. That leaves Shelley, impressive rookie Jakorian Bennett, veterans Brandon Facyson and David Long Jr., and incumbents Amik Robertson and Sam Webb all battling for the other outside cornerback spot. Tyler Hall and Robertson have slot versatility and can compete with Hobbs for that role.
It’s going to be a numbers game and the choice may be difficult for the Raiders to make. Las Vegas is in dire need of cornerbacks who are not only sticky in coverage but also make plays on the ball and are sure tacklers. Shelley fits that mold but is on the shorter side along with Robertson (also 5-foot-8) when compared to Facyson (6-foot-2), Webb (6-foot-2), Long (5-foot-11), and Peters (6-feet). But as noted above, the lack of height didn’t stop Shelley from being an effective cover man in the league last season. Thus, it’s hard to dismiss him especially considering his contract is modest when compared to Facyson (two year, $6.5 million with $2.268 million guaranteed; a $2.854 million cap number in 2023 and $3.6 million in 2024).
As long as Shelley maintains his effective play, it’ll make the decision to keep him that much easier. Unlike previous offseason slates, however, the NFL teams don’t have the luxury of doing gradual cut downs from the preseason 90-man rosters. Come August 29, all 32 teams must go from that number to the 53-man regular season limit. That’s a ton of cuts from all the squads in the league.
Shelley could be one of the 53. He could also be one of the cuts. Time will tell.