MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The COVID-19 pandemic turned life around the world upside down just as Michael Pierce signed his three-year, $27 million contract with the Minnesota Vikings.
The 350-pound defensive tackle’s worry about playing this season grew as quickly as the spread of the coronavirus. Pierce has asthma, putting him squarely in the heightened risk category for complications. His father has the chronic lung condition, too, worse than he does.
Once the NFL and the players’ union finalized their agreement for health-related protocols and the relevant financial adjustments last week, Pierce had more clarity on the decision he made official on Tuesday with a visit to Vikings headquarters.
As the rest of his teammates filed in for their initial tests, Pierce spoke with team owners, officials, doctors and coaches and received their support and encouragement before catching his flight home.
“I’m really crushed by this, for the fans and everybody who believed in me,” Pierce said in a phone interview on Tuesday night after arriving in his native Alabama. “I’m really looking forward to next year, and I’m going to give everything I’ve got while I’ll be home working out. I’ll be ready to roll when it’s time.”
Pierce, whose deal included $18 million in guaranteed money, will receive a $350,000 stipend for the season because he’s considered a non-voluntary absence. His contract terms won’t kick in until 2021, with the hope of rejoining the Vikings in the spring.
“Before I closed on my house, I was in my parents’ attic working out. I haven’t sat and eaten in a restaurant since February. I get my meal prep delivered to the house, and outside of me working out in a small group of two or three guys, that’s about it, man. So until this stuff subsides, I’ve just got to keep playing it safe and doing what’s best for me and my family and just staying out of the way,” Pierce said. “Obviously that doesn’t include playing football.”
Pierce, who previously spent four seasons with the Baltimore Ravens, was signed to take over at nose tackle for Linval Joseph, the two-time Pro Bowl pick who started in that spot for the last six seasons and is now with the Los Angeles Chargers. Pierce’s absence will open more opportunities for Armon Watts and Jaleel Johnson. It’s also possible Minnesota could sign a veteran on the open market.
The salary cap savings from tolling Pierce’s deal to next year could also help facilitate a new contract for running back Dalvin Cook.
Cook arrived at Minnesota’s facility for coronavirus testing as scheduled with the rest of the team’s veterans. Cook, who has begun the fourth and final year of his rookie deal with a base salary of slightly more than $1.3 million, is seeking a new contract. He backed out of the virtual offseason program last month after negotiations stalled.
Whether Cook will choose to take part in practice without an extension remains to be seen, but with the first on-field workout not until Aug. 12, there’s time for the team and his camp to come to an agreement. Simply showing up on Tuesday was critical for Cook, regardless of what his feelings might be about how the front office is approaching his status and value. According to the new collective bargaining agreement, Cook would have been subject to a maximum $50,000 fine per daily absence and forfeited a season of accrual toward unrestricted free agency had he held out.
By placing Pierce on the opt-out reserve list and putting two undrafted rookies, cornerback Nevelle Clarke and wide receiver Quartney Davis, on the non-football injury list, the Vikings reduced the size of their player pool for training camp practices to the maximum 80 players. They placed four rookies, including first-round draft pick wide receiver Justin Jefferson, on the reserve list for COVID-19 on Monday. That’s used for players who either test positive or who have been quarantined after having been in close contact with an infected person or persons.
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