While the majority of the Minnesota Vikings’ offseason has been limited to contract restructures and departures, they finally got one in the win column with the signing of Michael Pierce. The 27-year-old nose tackle signed a three-year deal worth $27 million and figures to be the team’s replacement for Linval Joseph, who signed with the Los Angeles Chargers on Wednesday.
Much like when Joseph signed with the Vikings during the 2014 offseason, Pierce is not a household name. He joined the Baltimore Ravens as an undrafted free agent out of Samford in 2016 and forced his way onto the roster, playing in 60 games and starting 30 during his four seasons in the league.
Pierce’s overall numbers aren’t going to trick anyone to think that the Vikings just landed Aaron Donald, but he’s an effective, run-stuffing lineman that could make the defensive line better. To do that, we have to ask what makes Pierce tick and what he can do to help Mike Zimmer’s defense.
Pierce’s nickname in Baltimore was “The Juggernaut” and for good reason. Much like the GIF of the X-Men supervillain, Pierce uses a 6’0″, 340-pound frame to burst through the offensive line, collapsing the pocket and snuffing out the running game.
As the player who set a Samford school record with a 725-pound squat, Pierce uses his frame to bull-rush opposing guards and send them backward. This ability was noticed quickly as he beat out several players for a roster spot and moved up Pro Football Focus‘ rookie rankings two weeks into the season.
“This is one guy to keep an eye on going forward,” PFF‘s Michael Renner wrote at the time. “The rookie out of Samford has only played 33 snaps over two games but has totaled a sack, a hit, and two hurries over that span. Right now, no first-year defensive lineman is grading higher. Pierce just needs to prove it’s not a sample-size fluke, and he’ll see himself move on up this list.”
Pierce never was a full-time starter in Baltimore but was used enough that he still made a major impact once the sample size expanded. His 9.1 percent run stop percentage ranked 21st among defensive tackles with a minimum of 20 percent of the league lead in snaps against running plays.
Even against elite guards such as New England’s Joe Thuney and Shaq Mason, Pierce flashed on the field, pushing the pocket and making life difficult for Tom Brady and the Patriots’ stable of running backs.
Making the defensive line better
Last season, getting penetration in the trenches was a major weakness for the Vikings interior defenders. Pierce’s predecessor Joseph had a similar skill set, but couldn’t provide the results he was getting earlier in his career.
While their pass rusher productivity rating of 3.2 was identical, Joseph came up with more sacks (3.5 to 0.5) but didn’t tend to make life easier for everyone else. His run-stop percentage was a full percentage point behind Pierce at 8.1 percent and in the Vikings’ playoff win in New Orleans, Zimmer opted to put Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffen on the inside just to generate interior pressure.
But it’s the ability to cave the pocket that should help the defensive line become more effective. Shamar Stephen has been a scapegoat of the Vikings’ interior troubles with lackluster analytics, but his effectiveness could improve with a better tag team partner in the middle.
The Vikings also have several rotational linemen that could find better success rushing the passer. Seventh-round pick Armon Watts is one name to keep an eye on as his 5.7 PRP rating in 53 pass-rushing snaps could be even better with Pierce taking on blockers.
Mix in the potential for an assist to defensive ends such as Hunter and Ifeadi Odenigbo — assuming the Vikings can’t work something out with Griffen — and Pierce should help in a big way.
An overall upgrade
One of the main goals for the Vikings this offseason was to create cap room and get younger on the defense. With Joseph set to turn 32 next October, the writing was on the wall that he wasn’t coming back with his $10.6 million cap number.
The addition of Pierce not only should provide the Vikings with a suitable replacement for Joseph, but should also help their salary cap situation.
With the added bonus of an extra $5.5 million saved in 2020, this should alleviate pressure against the cap as they wait for the savings of trading Stefon Diggs kicks in. All of this doesn’t take into consideration the Vikings’ 13 selections in the upcoming draft, where they could take someone like Javon Kinlaw to really overhaul their interior.
Overall, this appears to be a solid signing for the Vikings. If Pierce can do his job by collapsing the pocket and helping those around him, the $27 million that was invested should provide a fine return.