There's no question that the Ravens want to retain pending free-agent defensive tackle Brandon Williams. Assistant General Manager Eric DeCosta made that abundantly clear at the Senior Bowl.
But if Baltimore can't lock up Williams before he hits the open market, the Ravens will likely have to compete with other teams' offers. If it comes down to a decision on whether Baltimore is willing to match another team's pitch, the Ravens will weigh how well-equipped they would be to absorb the loss.
When it comes to that, Ravens rising sophomore Michael Pierce is a key factor. Could Pierce fill the gap?
Pierce is the Ravens' latest unearthed undrafted gem, and looks to have a bright future. The questions are how bright and how quickly can he get there.
The 6-foot-0, 339-pound Samford product made the team after a strong training camp and breakout performance in the final preseason game in which he notched the trifecta of a sack, strip* *and fumble recovery for a touchdown.
Once the regular season began, he immediately saw time on defense, and his snaps generally increased as the year went on. The Ravens got creative in how they used both Pierce and Williams at the same time.
By season's end, Pierce had 35 tackles and two sacks. He was a big reason why the Ravens had the league's fifth-ranked run defense, and flashed more pass-rush potential than many players at his position and with his size.
According to Pro Football Focus, Pierce was the second-best rookie interior defensive linemen in the NFL, only trailing Chiefs defensive tackle Chris Jones. Pierce was graded as the 14th-highest interior lineman overall. His run-stopping grade of plus-11.1 was actually higher than Williams' plus-9.5.
Pierce responded to his PFF grade Thursday on Twitter.
"I think I did pretty well, exceeded a lot of expectations being an undrafted rookie, finding my way on the field and making some plays," Pierce said as he cleaned out his locker after the season's end.
"I think I did fairly well, but I definitely have some things to work on this offseason to become better and take another step."
Pierce said the biggest lesson he learned as a rookie is that he has to take care of his body – from all the conditioning work, to the cold tub, massage therapy and his diet. Pierce admitted the toll from the entire season was tough to push through, which is fairly common for a rookie.
When Pierce received his highest snap counts, he got his lowest grades from PFF. He played 45 of 71 defensive snaps against the Dallas Cowboys in Week 11 and played 35 of 69 snaps against the New England Patriots.
Williams played 636 snaps to Pierce's 375, according to PFF. If Pierce had to take the next step of becoming a starter and cog in the middle of Baltimore's base defense, he would have to be physically ready for a heavier workload.
"It was a long year," Pierce said. "I'm definitely going to work on my conditioning next year – being able to go for a long time and longer drives."
The other part of Pierce's growth will be in the mental side of the game. Pierce is a very sharp player, and it's a testament to his knowledge and ability to correct mistakes that he was able to get on the field so quickly.
"I think my knowledge of the game is going to be a lot better, especially at the beginning of the season next year," Pierce said. "I'll be familiar with what guys want to do to me and what schemes they want to do against our defense."