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As camp begins, slimmed-down Michael Pierce apologizes to Ravens teammates for ‘letting them down’

Ravens defensive tackle Michael Pierce talks with the media following the first day of training camp.

Michael Pierce’s offseason transformation is best explained by its two endpoints. In June, the standout defensive tackle reported to mandatory minicamp so out of shape that he wasn’t allowed to practice. Five weeks later, the Ravens had given him the go-ahead to take a vacation to Italy, which did not become a culinary destination because of its low-carb offerings.

While other, lighter teammates sat out the first day of training camp Thursday, the Ravens’ most disruptive interior defender practiced with the same joy and strength that have always been part of his football diet. Afterward, he said he regretted letting his fitness ever come into question.

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“It feels great” to be back, Pierce told reporters. “Like I told my teammates, I really apologize for letting them down in minicamp. That’s never been indicative of my character to come in out of shape, and I told them it won’t happen again.”

Pierce said his weight started to become a problem when he missed voluntary organized team activities in the spring. He acknowledged that he hadn’t been diligent with his eating or conditioning, and that he’d focused more on weight lifting.

When he arrived at minicamp early last month, Pierce, who played last season at a listed 6 feet, 340 pounds, was closer to 390 pounds. He had barely finished stretching with teammates before Harbaugh approached Pierce and told him that, “for his own health and safety,” he was not ready to practice. He wouldn’t be playing with his fellow linemen; he’d be working out twice a day with strength and conditioning coach Steve Saunders.

Soon, Pierce’s body started to round into shape. With Saunders and head athletic trainer Ron Medlin overseeing his training — Pierce ran every day — and new director of sports nutrition Sarah Snyder improving his diet — a private chef introduced the Cajun cuisine lover to a paleo diet — Pierce lost over 20 pounds.

Maybe most impressive: His weight continued to fall despite trips this month to Venice and Capri in Italy and nearby Vatican City. It helped that he ate a lot of seafood — and traveled with a scale. As if he needed a reminder of the battle of the bulge he was waging.

When Pierce returned to Baltimore, he was placed on the non-football injury list but soon passed the team’s strenuous conditioning test. On Thursday, it was back to the status quo, Pierce rotating in with the team’s top defensive tackles during 11-on-11 work.

“You can't fake that,” Pierce said. “I feel like I'm good. I want to lose a couple more pounds before the season starts, and that'll come from continuing to eat well and doing a little extra cardio after practice.”

Ravens coach John Harbaugh, who called Pierce’s offseason conditioning a “problem” at minicamp, said he was “very impressed” with his progress since. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, evidence shows that healthy weight loss for most people is about 1 to 2 pounds a week. But those with greater muscle mass generally also have a higher resting metabolism, allowing Pierce to lose what Harbaugh called “the bad weight” and still maintain his strength.

“He still has a ways to go, but he passed the conditioning test,” he said. “That’s quite an accomplishment, especially for a big man like that. I’m impressed with what he’s done, and I’m very confident he will get the job done.”

Pierce earned Pro Football Focus’ best-ever grade for a Ravens interior defender last season, a period that dates to 2006, but averaged just under 28 defensive snaps per game last season. With his pending free agency, Pierce’s workload could determine his value on the open market. Few of the NFL’s best-paid defensive tackles in 2018 played under 40 snaps per game. Fewer still averaged less than 30.

Before his absence from minicamp, Pierce had never faced questions about his conditioning. Teammates said Thursday that they weren’t surprised he’d gotten back in playing shape.

“Man, we know who Michael Pierce is,” outside linebacker Matthew Judon said. “For the last three years, we’ve seen what Michael Pierce has done. … He’s going to be there, game in and game out. You go check the film, and you’re going to see Michael Pierce when he’s on the field. He is who he is, and I’m glad he got to his goal, a weight goal, for camp. But we know who he is.”

Added inside linebacker Patrick Onwuasor: “He’s going to do what he has to do to get on this field, and that’s what he did. That’s what he showed his teammates, that whatever he has to do to commit to this team, he’s going to get the job done.”

Center Matt Skura, who has known Pierce since before the 2016 NFL scouting combine, said his friend was exactly as he remembered him Thursday: big, physical and strong.

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Maybe too strong now, he joked. He sees enough of Pierce during training camp to know that.

“I would say he’s probably one of the top-five strongest guys in the NFL,” he said. “So strength for him, he probably doesn’t need to get any — I don’t want him to get any stronger than he already is. He’s strong as an ox. He’s still got it.”

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