A duel had been expected on Sunday between two of the NFL’s top running backs, but only one will play.

Vikings star Dalvin Cook will return to play at Carolina after missing two of the past three games, including last Sunday’s 19-17 win over Detroit, with a sprained right ankle. But Panthers star Christian McCaffrey was ruled out Friday with a hamstring injury and will miss his third straight game.

The Vikings, though, can’t relax. McCaffrey again will be replaced by rookie Chuba Hubbard, who rushed for 101 yards in Carolina’s 21-18 loss last Sunday to Philadelphia. And the Vikings will be without perhaps their top run stopper for a second straight game.

Minnesota on Friday ruled out nose tackle Michael Pierce with an elbow injury. Pierce was hurt Oct. 3 against Cleveland and sat out against the Lions. He is expected to be replaced for a second straight game by Armon Watts.

The Vikings also ruled out tight end Ben Ellefson, who suffered a knee injury against Detroit. No other players were on the injury report, including Cook, who practiced all week, and wide receivers Justin Jefferson (ankle) and Adam Thielen (foot). The receivers both sat out practices on Wednesday and Thursday, and were limited Friday.

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McCaffrey will sit out for the second straight year against the Vikings, also missing a 28-27 Minnesota win last November at U.S. Bank Stadium. But Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said Hubbard can be dangerous.

“He runs the ball really well,’’ Zimmer said. “(Hubbard) runs good routes coming out of the backfield. He’s a good player with speed.”

The Panthers also listed as out linebackers Kamal Martin (concussion) and Shaq Thompson (foot) and as questionable guard Deonte Brown (knee) and cornerback C.J. Henderson (shoulder).

Depth at tight end

The Vikings signed tight end Luke Stocker, an 11-year veteran, to the practice squad on Wednesday. And it’s not out of the question he could be elevated to play Sunday.

“He’s come on real quick as far as learning and understanding kind of the playbook and plays that we may end up having for him,’’ Zimmer said. “So we’ll see.’’

With Ellefson out Sunday, the Vikings will need a replacement for depth behind starting tight end Tyler Conklin. Also a candidate to be elevated is Brandon Dillon, who was protected on the practice squad Tuesday. Dillon made the 53-man roster to start the season, and played on special teams in the Sept. 12 opener at Cincinnati before being waived and re-signed to the practice squad.

The Vikings also have on the active roster Chris Herndon, who has played in all five games and committed two penalties while playing just seven snaps from scrimmage against the Lions. Nevertheless, Zimmer indicated he could play more against the Panthers.

“He didn’t get that many reps (due to personnel groupings), but I assume he’ll get some more this week,’’ Zimmer said.

Conklin has 19 receptions this season for 169 yards. After that, no Vikings tight end has caught a pass this season.

Best backup?

Is Minnesota’s Alexander Mattison the best backup running back in the NFL?

“I’ll leave that to the critics, but there definitely would be an argument,’’ he said. “You can’t ignore some of the statistics and some of the facts and the film.”

With Cook being out Sept. 26 against Seattle and against Detroit due to his sprained ankle, Mattison had rushing outings of 112 and 113 yards, respectively.

“Dalvin Cook is the most explosive back in football, in my opinion, and I’ve just been able to kind of learn from him and just when the time is there for me, step up to the plate,” Mattison said.