Make no mistake about it: Michael Pierce is a beast.
But when the Minnesota Vikings signed him to a three-year, $27 million deal on Wednesday, they spent vital cap space on a position that seems like it should be farther down on the must-have list than others like cornerback, wide receiver, edge rusher and offensive line.
Over the past four years, the 340-pound Pierce has done a terrific job stuffing the run for the Ravens, ranking as high by PFF standards as the fourth best interior defensive lineman against the run in 2018. But that was only on a mere 388 snaps, about half the snaps of the top run defender Damon Harrison. Last year with increased workload he dipped to the 42nd graded run defender. That doesn’t mean he fell off. It’s likely the sample size just evening things out.
As a pass rusher, he simply hasn’t been a factor. With 16 pressures and zero sacks on 308 pass rush snaps last season, which — quick math — is about 5% of snaps. Pierce ranked 63rd in total pressures among defensive tackles (tied with Linval Joseph, coincidentally).
The Vikings needed a Joseph replacement but fundamentally speaking, the road to winning in the NFL is successfully passing and stopping the pass. Other positions of need have a much greater impact on the passing game or shutting down the opponent’s passing game, yet with a $5.1 million cap hit for Pierce and run-stopping DT Shamar Stephen under contract for just over $5 million on the cap next year, they will spend over $10 million in cap space on two players incapable of rushing the passer (Stephen had six pressures on 350 pass rush snaps last season).
It’s possible that other comparable run stoppers like Cincinnati’s Andrew Billings or Detroit’s A’Shawn Robinson could have come cheaper. Nose tackle Danny Shelton signed a two-year, $8 million deal with Detroit. He created a higher pressure rate and more sacks than Pierce last season.
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To further put things in context, PFF data has Pierce worth 0.28 Wins Above Replacement over the past three seasons. Nickel corner Mackensive Alexander, who signed a one-year, $4 million deal with the Bengals, was worth that in 2017 alone.
With Pierce on the books the Vikings have $7 million in cap space (as of early Thursday), which means they will very likely be forced to trade Anthony Harris, who led the NFL in interceptions and was worth 0.65 WAR last season. The compensation is unlikely to be impressive as other teams know that the Vikings are in cap peril.
There will be bargains to be had late in free agency as their always are — former Rams nickel corner Nickell Robey-Coleman, for example, could take Alexander’s spot at a reasonable price. But with every dollar counting and the Vikings creating another gap by releasing Josh Kline on Wednesday, it’s difficult to see them landing their bargain targets when other teams can out-bid them.
The bottom line: If Pierce’s deal hinders the Vikings’ ability to fill other needs, it will ultimately be questionable even if he continues to be very good at his job.
Michael Pierce contract:
$6M signing bonus
2020: $3M base fully g'td, $100K workout bonus ($5.1M cap hit)
2021: $7.9M base (g'td on 3rd day of LY), $100k workout bonus, up to $500K roster bonus
2022: $8.9M base ($1.1M g'td 3rd day of LY), $100K workout, up to $500K roster bonus
— Ben Goessling (@GoesslingStrib) March 19, 2020
Just finished up all 15 games/520 snaps of Ravens NT Michael Pierce's 2019 campaign. He's been one of my favorite guys to study since 2017. Great natural leverage with excellent play strength, power, & good hand usage.
Here's a short preview of some of his top plays. pic.twitter.com/2dvocGPAb2
— Brandon Thorn (@BrandonThornNFL) March 7, 2020