Rookie Ezra Cleveland may be sticking around at right guard as Vikings coaches express optimism about his early progress while sounding less optimistic about guard Pat Elflein’s chances to return from injured reserve by the Nov. 16 deadline.
Cleveland, a second-round pick out of Boise State, will make his third NFL start on Sunday against the Lions, boosted by the Vikings’ 173-yard rushing day in Green Bay.
“A little more confident,” Cleveland said Friday. “Getting that experience under my belt has really helped me. I remember going into the first game, I was really nervous. I still got nervous before games at Boise, too, it’s just the gameday jitters and once I got out there, I settled down.”
Cleveland has been an upgrade over second-year guard Dru Samia, who started four games for Elflein earlier this season, despite moving from tackle to guard this summer.
“He’s actually continued to get better and better,” Zimmer said of Cleveland. “He’s done a nice job of getting to the second level, done a nice job of keeping his pads down. He seems to get into the flow of everything now. Got a chance to be a good player.”
Elflein, who is in a contract year, was sidelined Friday and “hasn’t practiced much,” according to Zimmer. The clock started Oct. 26 on his three weeks to practice while on injured reserve. If he is not cleared to return by Nov. 16, he’ll stay on IR with the surgically repaired thumb.
“It’s like one good day and the next day it may bother him a little bit,” offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak said. “Each day is a little bit different. [We’ll] try to get Pat back on the field, get him back available to our football team, but we have to be smart with him, too, because obviously that was a significant injury.”
Three corners out
The Vikings will be without at least three cornerbacks against the Lions as Cameron Dantzler (concussion), Mark Fields (chest) and Holton Hill (foot) were unable to practice this week and were ruled out. Fields, who sustained a punctured lung in Green Bay, was placed on injured reserve Friday and will miss at least the next three games.
Another corner, rookie Harrison Hand, is limited by a hamstring injury and listed as questionable.
That leaves Jeff Gladney, Kris Boyd, newly acquired Chris Jones and possibly Hand as the available corners on Sunday. Jones practiced with the Vikings for the first time this week after being claimed off waivers from the Lions two weeks ago.
“It’s pretty much status quo now, every week it’s like this,” Zimmer said. “But we feel good about the guys that are out there. They had a good week of practices. They just got to go out there and perform in the game.”
In another roster move Friday, the Vikings again promoted defensive lineman Hercules Mata’afa from the practice squad. A standout tackle at Washington State, Mata’afa played significant snaps at the end against the Packers on Sunday.
Griffen called ‘a terrific leader’
Zimmer said he “wasn’t trying to be derogatory” when calling former Vikings defensive end Everson Griffen a “good” player this week. Griffen, set to debut for the Lions on Sunday, took umbrage to being called “just a good player” and added Zimmer has “got a good player coming his way” on Sunday.
“I think I made him a captain my first or second year here,” Zimmer said. “He’s always been a terrific leader for us, always done everything we tried to ask him to do. I thought we had a good relationship. I don’t feel like I was being derogatory at all. I think Everson understands how I feel about him. I thought he did, anyway.”
The Lions ruled out top receiver Kenny Golladay (hip). Two other Lions starters, right guard Joe Dahl (back) and linebacker Christian Jones (knee), are listed questionable.
Zimmer is expecting quarterback Matthew Stafford to play for Detroit, which can happen only if Stafford continues to test negative for COVID-19. He has been isolating this week after being a close contact of an infected person.
The Vikings set aside time this week to look at Lions backup quarterback Chase Daniel.
“Fortunately, we played against Chase last year [in Chicago], so we know him,” Zimmer said. “We spent some time on him, but we expect Stafford to play.”
The Lions announced Friday afternoon that a staff member tested positive for COVID-19, but that person had not been at the team’s practice facility in the previous 48 hours. The Lions are operating under the NFL’s intensive protocols.