John Harbaugh took one look at Michael Pierce and knew there was a problem.
After sitting out the Ravens’ optional organized team activities this spring, Pierce reported to the team’s mandatory June minicamp well above his 2018 playing weight of 340 pounds. He was so far above, in fact, that Harbaugh promptly told Pierce to leave, citing safety concerns.
It was an embarrassing start to a contract year for Pierce, the defensive tackle who has been a reliable run-stuffer since beating the odds and making the Ravens as an undrafted rookie in 2016.
Since that June day, Pierce has tried to put behind him what he now acknowledges was a bad mistake, and he has set about regaining the confidence of his teammates and coaches, working to return to top form with free agency and a potential life-changing payday awaiting him next spring.
Pierce opted against attending the voluntary OTA workouts, not an uncommon occurrence for players who are approaching free agency and don’t want to risk a major injury. Linebacker Matthew Judon did the same thing this spring.
In hindsight, though, Pierce said, “I should have came in.”
Pierce instead focused on weight training — reasonable for a guy who makes his living trying to push around 350-pound behemoths — but admits that, “I wasn’t diligent in my dieting.”
By the time he returned to training camp six weeks later, Pierce had shed some of that weight — despite taking a previously scheduled trip to Italy, where he says he laid off the pasta and ate a lot of seafood. And when he returned, the affable Pierce found a supportive locker room that helped put the embarrassment behind him.
“That’s never been indicative of my character to come in out of shape,” Pierce said when training camp opened. “I told them it won’t happen again.”
“Having everybody behind me really, really helped,” Pierce said recently. “Like I said plenty of times, I should have came in. But at the end of the day, I knew I wanted to be here for this team, and I was responsible to these guys to be able to play and be able to play well.”
Brandon Williams, who starts alongside Pierce and joins him as a massive run-stuffing wall, said, “I had full trust in him this summer. I knew he was going to get back to where he was supposed to be.”
“He’s a big guy. We love to eat,” the 336-pound Williams added with a chuckle. “He buckled down and got where he needed to be. … He knows this is his job, and he knows where he’s trying to get to after the season is over. So I just told him, ‘Hey, let’s go make some money.’ He said, ‘OK.’ And you see where he is now.”
Goes The Undrafted Route
He’s a long way from where he was in 2012.
That year, Pierce was ruled academically ineligible at Tulane — a humiliating event given that his father, Michael Sr., had been a former Green Wave team captain. The younger Pierce, who was named to the Conference USA All-Freshman team, decided to leave Tulane, transferring to Samford of the Football Championship Subdivision.
He was named All-Southern Conference as a senior in 2015, but he never heard his named called during the NFL Draft.
He signed as an undrafted rookie with the Ravens in 2016, knowing the team’s affinity for undrafted players and reputation for defensive excellence would give him a chance. His attempt to buck the odds and make the 53-man roster came down to the wire.
“Michael Pierce … made the team after the fourth game of the preseason,” current defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale said, “because he wrecked that game.”
In that 2016 preseason finale at New Orleans, presumably his last chance to make a case for a roster spot, Pierce recorded a strip-sack that he recovered for a touchdown in a 23-14 Ravens win. With that, the Ravens had seen enough to keep him on the 53-man roster.
Pierce rewarded them by playing in every game as a rookie, and he and Williams quickly became the anchors of a stout interior defensive front. In 2017, Pierce started 13 games and finished with a career-best 49 tackles.
Last season, Pierce totaled 32 tackles for a defense that ranked No. 1 overall and No. 4 against the run, playing about 39 percent of the team’s defensive snaps. On a team with C.J. Mosley, Terrell Suggs, Eric Weddle and Za’Darius Smith, among others, Pro Football Focus rated Pierce tops among all Ravens defenders.
Pierce also drew some attention last season for his unlikely connection to Israel, which grew out of an NFL outreach program with Israel Collective, an arm of the organization Christians United for Israel. Pierce was among a group of NFL players who visited Israel in 2018, and the son of a pastor called the trip “a perspective-changer for me.”
As part of the league’s “My Cleats, My Cause” program last year, Pierce wore shoes with the Israeli flag and recognized the Israel Collective. Media from as far away as Jerusalem took notice.
“I knew I always wanted to go over there,” said Pierce, who attended Shabbat dinners and got a crash course in Middle Eastern politics. “My dad’s a pastor. So reading through the Bible, understanding where significant things are, it was important for me to get over there.”
“It was awesome,” he added. “I got to see where Jesus was, and it changed my perspective on a lot of things.”
Pierce’s 2018 season led to the first significant raise of his career, as he received a second-round tender as a restricted free-agent, worth $3.095 million. Another good season this year would indeed allow Pierce to, as Williams said, “make some money.”
A source said the Ravens and Pierce briefly discussed an extension this past offseason but weren’t close on terms, so both sides will let this season play out, and Pierce likely will test the free agent market next spring.
The Ravens have already invested more than $50 million in Williams, so it seems unlikely they can afford to pour a lot more resources into their defensive line, especially given so many other roster concerns. Pierce, like so many others, could be a player the Ravens groom and then lose when the free agency price gets too high.
Pierce’s offseason weight issue almost certainly will be raised during any free agency discussions, and it will be up to him to assuage those concerns with consistent play on the field this season.
Current Ravens, though, said that even when Pierce left minicamp for a summer of nutritionists and dieting, they had no doubt he would return to be a major factor up front for the Ravens.
“We know who Michael Pierce is,” Judon said. “For the last three years, we’ve seen what Michael Pierce has done. … He is who he is. He’s going to be there game in, game out. You go check the film, you’re going to see Michael Pierce when he’s on the field.”
Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox
Issue 258: October 2019