This time last year, defensive tackle Michael Pierce was an undrafted rookie that few people outside of the Ravens' coaching staff were talking about.
Now entering the Ravens' third preseason game, in which the starters will see their peak snaps before the regular season, Pierce is one of the defense's burgeoning stars.
"Michael Pierce is a great player," said Brandon Williams, who became the league's highest-paid nose tackle this offseason. "He is coming into his own."
After the Ravens' first preseason game, in which Baltimore held the Washington Redskins to negative yardage on two drives, it was Pierce who most caught the eye of former Ravens Head Coach Brian Billick, who was calling the action from the broadcast booth.
Last year, it wasn't until a massive fourth preseason game, in which Pierce came up with a rare sack, forced fumble, recovery for a touchdown trifecta, that the media and fans' eyes were opened to the hulking Samford product.
Pierce was one of two undrafted rookies to make the Ravens' 53-man roster last year, joining linebacker Patrick Onwuasor. While Onwuasor's role was mainly limited to special teams, Pierce was an impact role player on the Baltimore's defensive line.
Alongside Williams, Pierce registered 35 tackles and two sacks. He and Williams were the frontline of Baltimore's run defense, which was the best in the league for three quarters of the season.
The Ravens traded defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan to the Philadelphia Eagles this offseason in part because they know what they have in Pierce. In just a year, Pierce doesn't seem like an undrafted rookie anymore. He's a major part of the defense.
"That [undrafted] label is wiped away," Head Coach John Harbaugh said. "He'll always have pride in that – the fact that's how he earned his stripes, that pathway. But, he's a starting defensive lineman for us, and he's having the kind of camp we expect out of one of our starters."
There are a couple primary factors that make Pierce unique. First of all, he's an athletic freak.
Pierce has a skillset that is similar to Williams. Pierce is 6-foot-0, 340 pounds (one inch shorter, same weight as Williams), but he moves like a player carrying much less cushion.* *
Pierce is so nimble that he grew up playing linebacker in high school. He started his college career at Tulane as a 290-pound defensive end, then beefed up more and moved inside.
"I still have pretty good hips for a big guy, and I'm still pretty quick," said Pierce, who isn't one to brag.
"There are not many like him," Defensive Line Coach Joe Cullen said. "Brandon is agile like that. I've had big guys in the past – Shaun Rogers – but they were real big [tall, 6-foot-4]. These two are real special. Michael has great short-area quickness, where he can stick his foot in the ground and redirect."
Pierce also makes the most of those genetic gifts. One of the first things that rolls off the tongue of teammates and coaches when talking about Pierce is his work ethic.
"He came in – doesn't say much, works hard, he's a really good player, learns, plays hard, comes back and does it the next day and the day after that, and the day after that," Harbaugh said.
"He's a guy that brings his hard hat every day and works to get better every day," Cullen added. "Last year at this time, you didn't really know who he was until the pads came on and you thought, 'OK – wow. This guy might be something.'"
Pierce said he doesn't pay attention to the fact that he went from working with the third-team defense last summer to now being a starter during this year's training camp.
"I just work hard," he said. "I just want to come out and put everything I have on the line."
Harbaugh outlines goals for each player before they head into the offseason. For Pierce, he told him to be like Williams, who has risen from a small-school third-round pick in 2013 to a man holding a five-year contract extension.
This offseason, Pierce studied Williams, as well as Kelly Gregg, who spent 10 years as a gritty blue-collar player in Baltimore, and Haloti Ngata, who went to five Pro Bowls as a Raven before being traded to the Detroit Lions.
"[Williams] is the best nose guard in the league, in my opinion, and I am just following in his footsteps," Pierce said. "I want to control the line of scrimmage and be the best player that I can and follow in those guys' footsteps – that is what I am working on."
Pretty soon, opponents are going to have to start treating Pierce just like they do Williams. Williams said he anticipates that opposing offensive linemen will swap between double teaming him and Pierce. What a difference that is from a year ago when even those in Baltimore were still learning Pierce's name.
"It's been a journey," Pierce said with a wide smile. "I can't explain it; it's been awesome."