98 Days Until Vikings Football: Previewing Michael Pierce's Impact in 2020
As we count down the days until the Vikings' opener against the Packers on September 13th, InsideTheVikings will be previewing every single player on the roster. The amount of days remaining corresponds with the jersey number of the player being examined on that day. Today is June 7th, and there are 98 days until kickoff for the 2020 regular season. That means it's time to preview the Vikings' biggest free agent acquisition of the offseason, nose tackle Michael Pierce.
Countdown to Vikings-Packers on September 13th: 98 Days
Player Preview: Michael Pierce (No. 98, Nose Tackle)
- College: Samford
- Drafted: 2016 UDFA (Baltimore Ravens)
- NFL experience: Four years (2020 will be his fifth season)
- Age: 27 (Turns 28 on November 6)
- Size: 6'0", 340
- 2019 PFF Grade: 69.2 (but it was 90.8 in 2018)
- Notable 2019 stats: 35 tackles, 2 TFL, 1 fumble recovery
- Notable career stats: 151 tackles, 15 TFL, 3.5 sacks, 4 fumbles recovered
Despite making quite a few moves that cleared up cap space – cutting Xavier Rhodes and Linval Joseph, restructuring Kirk Cousins and Danielle Hunter, and moving on from Everson Griffen, to name a few – the Vikings were not major players in free agency this offseason. Part of that was because they were in such a dire financial situation that even those moves didn't give them a ton of room to work with. Also, transactions involving Rhodes, Joseph, Stefon Diggs, and Josh Kline left the Vikings with over $20 million in dead money, the sixth-most of any team.
Much of the money they did have to spend went towards retaining players like Anthony Harris, Eric Wilson, C.J. Ham, Dan Bailey, and Britton Colquitt. The Vikings added a few players from outside the organization on veteran minimum deals, but only made one splashy free agent pickup: nose tackle Michael Pierce.
Back on March 18th, the Vikings agreed to terms with Pierce on a three-year, $27 million deal. It was the third-biggest deal for a defensive tackle this offseason, with only D.J. Reader (Bengals) and Javon Hargrave (Eagles) getting more money.
It may seem odd for a team's one big signing to be a nose tackle, but the Vikings clearly believe it's an important position in Mike Zimmer's defense. One of the first major moves of the Zimmer era was bringing in Joseph in 2014. Six years later, with Joseph joining the Chargers in free agency, the Vikings went out and got his replacement.
"Zimmer's entire defensive scheme only works with a dominant [nose tackle]," former Vikings offensive lineman Jeremiah Sirles tweeted in March. "That's just a fact."
There's reason to believe that Pierce will be an upgrade from Joseph, who became a fan favorite in Minnesota over six strong years. At 27, he's four years younger than his predecessor, whose disruptive presence waned slightly over the past couple seasons. Pierce is in the prime of his career and has proven that when he's at his best, he can be one of the most impactful run-stoppers in the league.
Pierce was an important piece of the Ravens' defensive line in each of the last four years after going undrafted out of Samford. As a rookie, he played nearly 400 snaps and received a strong PFF grade of 79.7. He was even better in 2017, playing almost 600 snaps and bumping his grade up to 86.9. Pierce's snaps fell back below 400 in 2018, even as his grade rose to an elite mark of 90.8. Last year was his worst season by grade, but he was dealing with a lingering ankle injury that may have limited his effectiveness.
The main thing that stands out about Pierce is his size; he is a massive human being at 6'0," 340 pounds. That frame allows him to plug gaps and command double-teams, but he is still mobile enough to play with good leverage for someone his size. Two of the main benefactors of this signing are Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr, the Vikings' playmaking linebackers. With Pierce eating up space and doing the dirty work that doesn't show up on the stat sheet, Kendricks and Barr will be able to continue making plays downhill against the run.
Pierce will likely take on a bigger role in Minnesota than he ever had in Baltimore, especially if he is able to improve as a pass-rusher. His career-high in snaps was 594 in 2017; Joseph exceeded 660 snaps in four of his six years as a Viking. Pierce has always been more of a run-stuffer than a pass-rusher, with just 3.5 sacks in four years. Joseph had at least 3.5 in 2016 and 2017 alone, making the Pro Bowl in both years. If Andre Patterson can help Pierce add to his game in that regard, the Vikings could utilize him as a nearly full-time player.
However, Pierce's value might actually be maximized by keeping him fresh for early downs and rotating in a pass-rushing tackle like Armon Watts or Jaleel Johnson for obvious passing situations. It will be interesting to see how Zimmer, Patterson, and the Vikings choose to utilize their new toy in 2020.
What will be even more interesting is to see who winds up playing the majority of the snaps next to Pierce at the three-technique spot.
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