The Vikings will likely be without two offensive starters Sunday against the Panthers, and coaches are still waiting to learn whether they’ll be down a third in receiver Adam Thielen.
Right guard Ezra Cleveland has been ruled out after being unable to practice for a second straight week because of an ankle injury he played through in the Nov. 16 win at Chicago. He’ll be replaced again by veteran Brett Jones, who last Sunday started his first game in two years.
Tight end Irv Smith Jr. is expected to miss his second game in three weeks. He is listed doubtful while dealing with groin and back injuries, the latter picked up after returning last game. He was unable to practice this week outside of Wednesday’s limited session. The coaching staff trusts third-year tight end Tyler Conklin, who played 46 snaps in Chicago, to step into a big role.
“[Conklin] is doing really well,” offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak said. “He’s got a bright future. I see him as a guy who can do a little bit of everything. He can play on the line of scrimmage, run good routes, got good hands. … I really like how he works. He’s playing behind a couple good players.”
Thielen’s availability may be in question until Sunday morning, coach Mike Zimmer said, as the Vikings await results of daily coronavirus tests that will determine whether Thielen needs to remain quarantined. He hasn’t been ruled out yet.
“We’ll just have to see,” Zimmer said Friday. “He’s going through the protocol. We’ll just have to see how it goes on Sunday.”
For the Panthers, guard Dennis Daley (concussion) is out; cornerback Donte Jackson (toe) is doubtful; seven are questionable in running back Christian McCaffery (shoulder), tackle Russell Okung (calf), guard John Miller (knee/ankle), linebacker Tahir Whitehead (rib), receiver Brandon Zylstra (shoulder), safety Sam Franklin (ankle) and defensive end Marquis Haynes (shoulder).
McCaffery has missed eight games this season because of injuries, and Panthers head coach Matt Rhule said Friday he expects McCaffery to miss his ninth Sunday despite being listed questionable.
Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, who missed last Sunday’s game with a knee injury, is off the injury report and ready to start against the Vikings, his former team.
Dantzler possibly back
Rookie cornerback Cameron Dantzler could be in the starting lineup again after coming off the bench against the Cowboys in his return from a two-week absence and concussion. Dantzler fared well against Dallas, according to coaches, and he stayed on the field once cornerback Chris Jones was benched in the loss.
“The more Cam plays, the better he’s getting,” said Adam Zimmer, the co-defensive coordinator. “He was in the right position, for the most part, in the game and he did some nice things. We’ve still got to keep homing in on the details of his technique and his footwork and all that, but I think he’s progressing.”
‘Best guy will play’
The long-snapper competition continues for the Vikings, and “the best” between Austin Cutting and newcomer Andrew DePaola will play against the Panthers, special teams coordinator Marwan Maalouf said. After mounting misfires, Cutting was benched last week for DePaola, a 33-year-old journeyman signed to the practice squad to play against the Cowboys and possibly longer.
“They all handled it really well,” Maalouf said. “We’re prepping both guys. Really, not much beyond that. Austin’s working hard every day to get better and improve, and we’ve got Andrew with us right now and he’s doing the exact same. They’re two good pros, and the best guy will play on Sunday.”
Fields practices again
Cornerback Mark Fields returned to practice Friday after being designated to come off injured reserve from a punctured lung suffered Nov. 1 in Green Bay.
This opens a 21-day window for the Vikings to activate Fields, a second-year undrafted player out of Clemson. He was injured during his defensive debut against the Packers, playing 20 snaps before the injury.