Pierce begins contract year with Ravens in dubious fashion

June 11, 2019 | Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens’ two most notable players entering the final year of their rookie contracts had strikingly different starts to mandatory minicamp.

Both outside linebacker Matthew Judon and defensive tackle Michael Pierce chose to skip Baltimore’s voluntary offseason training program this spring, a common practice of notable players in contract years. However, while Judon looked as though he hadn’t missed a beat during Tuesday’s practice, Pierce didn’t even make it out of the opening warmup period.

Noticeably bigger than his listed 340-pound frame from last season, Pierce left the field and didn’t return after a brief conversation with head coach John Harbaugh just minutes into the morning workout.

“He’s not ready to practice, just from a safety standpoint, for his own healthy and safety,” Harbaugh said. “We recognized that, and we pulled him off for that reason.

“He’s not ready for that practice yet. You can probably tell.”

It was an embarrassing development for the former undrafted free agent, who graded as Pro Football Focus’ fifth-best interior defender in 2018 and is seeking a lucrative contract next offseason. Any player has the right not to partake in voluntary workouts, of course, but such a decision comes with the expectation of being ready to practice upon reporting to the team facility for mandatory activities.

While the organization’s primary focus remains on what Pierce will contribute this season and there’s plenty of time for the 26-year-old to get himself in shape before the start of training camp in late July, the unintended message he delivered Tuesday was one of caution to the Ravens or any other team potentially interested in signing him to a long-term deal.

“It’s a problem, absolutely,” Harbaugh said. “We want guys practicing. We want them ready to practice, physically able to practice. That’s very important.”

Meanwhile, Judon worked at his usual strong-side outside linebacker position and moved well playing the run, rushing the passer, and occasionally dropping back into pass coverage. He’s the only returning outside linebacker to have played extensive snaps in last year’s defense after the free-agent departures of Terrell Suggs and Za’Darius Smith.

Judon, 26, is seeking his third consecutive season with seven or more sacks, which would put him in position for a major contract.

“He looked like he was in shape,” Harbaugh said. “He played fast and worked hard, knew what he was doing. He looked good.”

Left guard surprise

The competition at left guard is expected to be one of the more intriguing position battles this summer, but few would have predicted third-year lineman Jermaine Eluemunor earning the first opportunity.

With Alex Lewis still recovering from offseason shoulder surgery and James Hurst working with the second-string offensive line, Eluemunor practiced as the first-team left guard Tuesday and manned the spot during voluntary organized team activities. The 2017 fifth-round pick made two starts at right guard and appeared in eight games as a rookie, but he was waived last September and spent a month on the practice squad before making his way back to the active roster. The 24-year-old appeared in nine games and made one start in place of an injured Ronnie Stanley at left tackle last season.

“I think each year, each practice, he’s had some good growth,” offensive line coach Joe D’Alessandris said. “He played as a rookie. That’s tough. We put him in a very difficult situation, but he responded well. Last year, he played again at tackle. He can play left tackle. This guy is athletic. He’s another big guy that can move and that’s very athletic.

“I just saw continued growth, and I said, ‘Give him a chance.’ So, I put him back in at [left] guard, and he’s doing a real nice job there. We’ll see how it all pans out.”

In addition to Eluemunor, Lewis, and Hurst, second-year interior lineman Bradley Bozeman and fourth-round rookie Ben Powers are also expected to be in the mix at left guard, which is exactly the way D’Alessandris prefers it. Lewis began last season as the starter before neck and shoulder injuries limited him to 10 games, opening the door for Hurst, Bozeman, and former Raven Hroniss Grasu to start games at left guard.

With Lewis entering the final year of his rookie deal and having played in just 20 games in his first three seasons because of injuries, left guard appears to be wide open.

“I think that’s how football should be. I think give everyone the chance,” D’Alessandris said. “Between now and our opener, we don’t know what’s going to happen per player. Let’s let each day take its course, and let’s see how each player plays. Usually, the cream surfaces to the top at the very end.”

Attendance

In addition to Pierce and Lewis, three others were not participating in Tuesday’s workout. That included first-round rookie wide receiver Marquise Brown (foot), cornerback and punt returner Cyrus Jones, and rookie guard Patrick Mekari.

Harbaugh confirmed Jones is dealing with a non-football health issue, even going as far as revealing the former Gilman star had “an episode” a few months ago. The Ravens have not disclosed the condition, and neither Jones nor head athletic trainer Ron Medlin have been made available to reporters.

“He’s not cleared to practice at this time because of that,” Harbaugh said. “We do expect him back for training camp as far as I’ve been told, but I think there are tests and things like that that he has to pass.”

For the second straight week, Brown was working off to the side as he moves closer to his expected return for the start of training camp.

Safety Tony Jefferson participated for roughly 75 minutes Tuesday in what was his first practice since his January ankle surgery.