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Baltimore Ravens hit the jackpot with Michael Pierce

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When the Baltimore Ravens signed defensive tackle Michael Pierce as an undrafted free agent immediately following the 2016 NFL draft, he was considered to be merely a training camp body, without an honest chance to make it in the NFL.

Pierce was so underrated that information on him from the major scouting publications was widely unavailable, his Samford school record 725-pound squat was his only claim to fame. Victor Ochi and Matt Skura were the most nationally hyped undrafted rookies that the Ravens signed while Patrick Onwuasor and Cavellis Luckett received buzz as players that could potentially help fill the Ravens need for coverage specialist linebackers.

After Pierce showcased his ability throughout training camp, he was the only undrafted free agent to earn a place on the Ravens team, also beating out multiple recent Ravens draft picks for one of the final spots on the 53-man regular season roster. Over four preseason games, Pierce routinely collapsed the pocket, accumulating six tackles including one and a half sacks. In the final preseason game against the Saints, he forced a Luke McCown fumble, and then recovered the ball in the end zone for a touchdown. Once backup defensive tackle Carl Davis suffered an ankle injury that would land him on injured reserve, Pierce’s path to a roster spot became clear. Looking back now, Pierce had likely already earned a place on the regular season depth chart before Davis went down.

Micheal Pierce has been one of the Ravens best defenders through two regular season contests. Pro Football Focus selected Pierce as the 10th best rookie in the league through Week 2...

Pierce is the only undrafted rookie on their list and so far, is playing at a higher level than all 23 defensive tackles that were drafted in 2016. Willie Henry, a Ravens fourth round rookie, has been deactivated in each of the first two games. Pierce has been a revelation, making more of an impact in two games than 2015 second round defensive tackle Carl Davis accomplished during his entire rookie season last year.

The emergence of Pierce benefits the Ravens on multiple fronts. After more than a decade of focusing their roster building on run defenders, the Ravens modernized their strategy to counter the league-wide emphasis on passing, resulting in a 2016 depth chart that is a bit thin on run plugging specialists. Five-technique defensive ends Lawrence Guy and Brent Urban are average run stoppers, both can be moved off the line or pinned inside against quality blockers. Edge setting outside linebackers are also scarce, Terrell Suggs and Albert McClellan are the only outside backers who are proficient at stopping the run. Elvis Dumervil, Za’Darius Smith and Kamalei Correa are essentially pass rushing specialists at this point in their careers, while rookie Matt Judon has the ability to become a dynamic edge setter, but needs more seasoning.

The wide-bodied Pierce’s ability to take on blocks on the interior gives the Ravens defense much more versatility than they would have had without him. When lined up next to nose guard Brandon Williams, the pair of two-gappers can occupy four offensive lineman. This allows the Ravens to play more 4-man fronts with smaller pass rushers as the defensive ends. Without Pierce, the run stopping ability from the Ravens defensive line would be an issue. His penetration has been a surprising bonus.

The aforementioned Williams is an unrestricted free agent next offseason. Judging by comparable player contracts, specifically Giants nose tackle Damon Harrison, Williams market value will be upwards of $9 million per season on the open market. Pierce, as an undrafted rookie, is under contract with the Ravens though the 2018 season at an average cap charge of less than $550 thousand annually. Replacing Williams with Pierce next year aligns with Ozzie Newsome’s 80/20 strategy, where the Ravens find 80% of a departed players production for 20% of the cost. 80/6 is more accurate in this situation.

Granted, two games is a minuscule sample size. Pierce will need to maintain and improve upon his play to deliver 80% of Williams production. But the development of the burly lineman has already been a big boost for the team.

Pierce follows in a long tradition of Ravens undrafted free agent success stories. At linebacker, Bart Scott and Dannell Ellerbe stand out as undrafted finds that helped the Ravens create a period of defensive excellence. Priest Holmes, Mike Flynn and Ma’ake Kemoeatu have also earned a place in the Ravens annals of top undrafted rookie signings. Justin Tucker is the best recent example of a undrafted free agent that played a large part in winning the Super Bowl. Once the games begin, pre-draft grades are forgotten, performance on Sundays is the only factor that matters.

In combination with impressive rookies Tavon Young and Matt Judon, along with young veteran players including C.J. Mosley, Timmy Jernigan, Za’Darius Smith and Zach Orr, the Ravens are building a foundation for a championship caliber defense. Perhaps more importantly, the cost controlled contracts for all of these core defenders will give the Ravens more flexibility to supplement their defense through the draft and free agency, as the old guard moves on over the next few seasons.

Through two games, Pierce has proven himself to be a prominent member of the Ravens future. In Michael Pierce, the Ravens talent mining machine has hit the jackpot once again.