The Vikings need to beat the Panthers on Sunday to keep their slim playoff hopes alive, and it appears they'll have to do it without two of their top pass-catchers. Neither Adam Thielen nor Irv Smith Jr. are expected to play this weekend, which will make Kirk Cousins' job a bit more difficult.
Thielen was added to the Reserve/COVID-19 list on Monday and is still there, meaning he hasn't practiced all week. He reportedly had both a positive and a negative test earlier this week, but it sounds like he may have tested positive again since then. ESPN's Jeremy Fowler broke the news on Friday that Thielen is expected to miss the Panthers game "barring a change this weekend."
Losing Thielen is a huge blow for the Vikings' offense. He leads the NFL with 11 receiving touchdowns, ten of those coming inside the red zone. Thielen is Cousins' top target, leading the team in both targets and receptions.
Without Thielen, rookie star Justin Jefferson becomes the clear top option in the Vikings' passing game. He has been severely underutilized this season, so this should be a chance for Jefferson to see more target volume than usual. However, it remains to be seen how he'll handle being the obvious No. 1 option with Thielen not on the field.
Next in line for snaps at wide receiver are Chad Beebe and Bisi Johnson. The Vikings could also give a decent role to Tajae Sharpe, who has been a healthy scratch almost ever week since signing in free agency this offseason. At 6'4", the former Tennessee Titan could give Cousins a big target on the outside. Alexander Hollins could also be a candidate to be elevated from the practice squad.
Meanwhile, Smith is listed as doubtful as he deals with injuries to the groin and back. The second-year tight end missed the Bears game two weeks ago with that groin injury, but returned last weekend against the Cowboys. Either Smith's groin has gotten worse or a new back injury is what's keeping him out this weekend.
Kyle Rudolph should see an expanded role in the passing game, just like he did in Chicago when Smith was out. Rudolph caught four passes for 63 yards in that game, both of which are his season highs. With no Thielen, Rudolph could conceivably be the No. 2 option behind Jefferson for Cousins.
Tyler Conklin will once again fill in as the Vikings' No. 2 TE.
The only other player on the injury report for the Vikings is right guard Ezra Cleveland, who will miss a second straight game with an ankle injury. Brett Jones will remain the starter at RG this week.
For the Panthers, CB Donte Jackson is doubtful and seven players are questionable, including star RB Christian McCaffrey and starting left tackle Russell Okung. It sounds like McCaffrey is unlikely to play.
Teddy Bridgewater is off the injury report and will start against his old team on Sunday.
Here's the full injury report:
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