Tuesday, July 28, 2020

DT Michael Pierce Opts Out: What's Next for the Vikings?

Photo: Vikings.com

Vikings defensive tackle Michael Pierce has opted out of the 2020 season. How will the team replace him? Daniel House provided several potential options. 

by: Daniel House (@DanielHouseNFL)

This offseason, the Vikings invested resources into stopping the run. Minnesota signed free agent nose tackle Michael Pierce to a three-year, $27 million contract in March.

Now, as the NFL prepares to play football during the COVID-19 pandemic, many players are choosing to opt out. Pierce is the latest athlete to make this decision.

The Vikings' 6-foot-0, 340-pound defensive tackle is opting out of the 2020 season, according to NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero and Mike Garafolo. Pierce suffers from respiratory issues and is a high-risk COVID-19 candidate, per Ian Rapoport. His contract will toll into 2021, which frees up around $5 million in 2020 cap space. Pierce was slated to earn $3 million in base salary, but this figure will shift into 2021. The Vikings were originally responsible for his $2 million signing bonus in 2020. However, the league announced those bonuses will be removed from the 2020 cap, per Tom Pelissero. Therefore, the Vikings gained an additional $2 million in cap space (around $5 million in total savings). Pierce's cap hit is just $350,000 in 2020.

After this news, Minnesota currently has around $14 million in available cap space, according to Spotrac. 

Pierce was going to play an important role in the Vikings’ 2020 defensive scheme. Now, the team must quickly figure out how to approach his absence. Minnesota may fill this hole internally or through free agency.

Internal Candidates

With limited free agent options available, it is possible second-year defensive tackle Armon Watts could elevate into a prominent role.

I left 2019 training camp intrigued by the developmental potential of Watts. During the regular season, he flashed his potential and played out of multiple alignments. Watts’ athleticism and strength are two of his best traits. Within a small snap share, he was impactful as both a run defender and pass rusher. He does an excellent job of striking, getting inside hand position and shedding through blockers. Watts is also going to continue improving his technique under the instruction of defensive line coach Andre Patterson. With Pierce opting out of the 2020 season, Watts may slide into a large role on the Vikings’ defensive line.

Overall, Minnesota has a variety of different skill sets at the defensive tackle position. During his NFL career, Jaleel Johnson has played both nose tackle and 3-technique. Johnson has shown flashes of potential, but hasn’t had a breakthrough moment yet. It is possible the Vikings could establish a rotation between Johnson and Watts at nose tackle. After that, James Lynch, Shamar Stephen, Jalyn Holmes and Hercules Mata’afa would compete for reps at 3-tech. All of these players provide a different skill set, which allows Zimmer to deploy unique alignments and sub-packages.

However, Pierce was a pure nose tackle and fit the Vikings’ defensive scheme perfectly. He had the power to take on double teams and jam up gaps. Right now, Minnesota doesn’t really have a pure nose tackle on the roster. The team's current options are versatile and have the traits to play both spots. This means the Vikings may need to explore the open market.

If they want to add a veteran defensive tackle via free agency, there are a few solid options available.

Domata Peko - 14-year NFL veteran with Cincinnati, Denver and Baltimore 

While in Cincinnati, Mike Zimmer coached Domata Peko for six seasons. Peko became a solid run defender in Zimmer’s system. I went back through a few 2011 games to see his role in the defense. He was a solid run defender and even provided value as a pass rusher in Zimmer’s scheme.

After a strong start to his career with the Bengals, Peko’s game slowly declined. He was a strong contributor for more than a year in Denver. However, over time, his production slowly dipped. A MCL sprain eventually caused his game to fall off even more. He had plenty of time to heal and signed a late-season deal with Baltimore last November.

At 35 years old, Peko needs to play a rotational role. He is very familiar with Zimmer’s scheme and could provide a veteran presence at nose tackle. NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero reported Peko is in “great shape” and wants to keep playing. If the price is right, it might be worth taking a chance on him.

Damon “Snacks” Harrison - 9-year NFL veteran with the Jets, Giants and Lions 

During his time with the Giants, Damon “Snacks” Harrison was one of the best run-defending nose tackles in the NFL. Entering 2018, he led the league in run-stop percentage for five consecutive years, according to Pro Football Focus. Harrison was arguably the best run defender in the NFL. When injuries started to pile up, things changed. Harrison was traded to the Lions and dealt with numerous upper and lower-body injuries. These limitations clearly impacted his ability to be successful. However, there were still plenty of bright spots littered throughout his film in 2019.

NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero said Harrison hasn’t decided if he will play in 2020. He was once considering retirement, but is currently gathering information, per Pelissero. 

Harrison is going to command more money than other options. When considering his past injury history, this would be a high-risk, high-reward type of move for the Vikings. If he is healthy and the money lines up, he may provide a significant upgrade.

Final Thoughts: 

Michael Pierce was going to be an anchor of the Vikings’ defensive line in 2020. There isn’t much time to figure out a plan. With training camp set to begin this week, Minnesota needs to quickly patch a big hole in its defense.